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0 - The Neglected Books Page

Human Being, by Christopher Morley

After forty-plus years of nosing through the stacks of book stores, it’s hard to surprise me. When I came across a Modern Library edition of Human Being by Christopher Morley while browsing in the Harvest Book Company store in Philadelphia, it was a double punch: not just a Modern Library title I’d never seen before, but a Christopher Morley novel that I couldn’t recall.

I know most of the Modern Library list by heart–even the early oddities like Artzibashev’s Sanine and Kuprin’s Yama (The Pit). I should devote a post, in fact, to the curiosities that can be found in the full Modern Library backlist. And, of course, I’ve seen hundreds of copies of Morley’s best-known books, particular his two bibliophile novels, Parnassus on Wheels (1917) (a Modern Library title from 1930 till the early 1950s) and The Haunted Bookshop (1919), and his biggest best-seller, Kitty Foyle (1939). And I must have come across Human Being before, as it went into at least six printings when it first came out in 1934. If I had, though, the memory has gone with the wind.

For a solid three-plus decades, between the late 1910s and early 1950s, Christopher Morley was one of the best-known literary figures in America. A prolific essayist, reviewer, and writer of every type of literature, from plays and poetry to short stories and novels. He was one of the founders of the Saturday Review magazine and one of the first members of the Book of the Month Club review board. He did not aspire to creating great art, although he has an enthusiastic proponent of bringing literature to the masses–editing, for example, a collection of Shakespeare’s plays and sonnets for the popular audience.

Yet, at the same time, he appears to have been happy to follow his whims wherever they led, taking it for granted that enough readers to pay his mortgage would want to come along. And anyone who would read Human Being needs to be ready to follow Morley’s meanderings, as he happily takes many a detour from the narrative.

Starting with the narrator himself. The core of Human Being is based around the attempt by Lawrence Hubbard, a semi-retired accountant, to construct a biography of Richard Roe–a man he meets just once, over lunch with some other acquaintances, a few weeks before Roe’s death. But from the very beginning, another voice, clearly that of Morley, takes over, and reaches over Hubbard’s shoulder to grab the pen whenever the spirit moves him. “This is not the biography of Richard Roe,” he interjects at the start of Chapter Three, “but a biography of that biography.” And, where needed to move things along, an omniscient narrator steps in to let us into the minds of Roe, his wife, his mother-in-law, and even his Pekinese dog.

In giving his protagonist the name Richard Roe, Morley makes it pretty obvious that he wants to tell an Everyman story. Which requires, of course, a character with few distinguishing traits. Recalling Roe from their one lunch together, Hubbard remarks, in fact, that Roe “had a talent for not being noticeable.” He does, however, remember one thing Roe said: “Not long ago, I went up Riverside Drive at night on a bus. Suddenly an electric sign across the river flashed on in the dark, caught me right in the eyeball. It said THE TIME IS NOW 7:59. You know that damned thing frightened me.”

A short while after the lunch, Hubbard finds a short notice in the paper:

Richard Roe of 50 West 81st Street, manufacturer of stationery novelties with an office in the Flatiron Building, was taken ill on a Lackawanna Railroad ferryboat last night and died before the boat reached Hoboken. A heart attack was said to be the cause.

This leads Hubbard to decide to write a biography of Roe. Partly because “He had reached that period–it usually comes somewhere in the fifth decade–when a man decides that if he is ever going to do anything worth while he had better get started.” And partly because, as an accountant, “He was a great believer in the only law that is unerringly enforced, the law of averages.” Who better, then, to study, than an essentially unknown human being, to answer the question: “What was the basic alloy involved in being human?”

Richard Roe’s story is simple: he gets a start as a go-fer in a touring theatre company and works his way up to house manager. He switches to publishing when offered a job and works his way up to a regional salesman. Then, on a suggestion and a little financing from one of his customers, he starts his own company, making and selling things like ink stands and deskpads. It fares well, even into the start of the Depression. And then he dies.

Morley tries to build a great tragedy upon this slight foundation. Roe marries the box-office manager, Lucille, while they are both working for the theatre company, but she turns out to be a shrew. Years later, he meets Minnie Hutzler, who manages the book section in a Chicago department store. The two are attracted to each other. Minnie inspires Roe to form his own business and comes to New York to help him run it. They eventually have an affair–a very tentative one–but Roe finds himself trapped. Morley would have us believe that Roe dies not of a heart attack but of a heart broken for a love he can never fully express and enjoy. It helps, of course, that Lucille is a bitter, jealous, and relentless harridan, while Minnie is what Alice Kahn called a “gal”: sympathetic, supportive, but also as wily and worldwise as an Eve Arden or Thelma Ritter character.

In truth, what makes Human Being a rich and wonderful book is not the story but the detours. For although Roe’s life “cuts a narrow groove along the canyons of Manhattan,” as Morley puts it at one point, it’s full of intersections that lead down fascinating side streets.

So Roe’s time in show business leads Morley into a three-page meander into the classified ads in Variety. His office supply company gives Morley an excuse for a soliloquoy about inkstands and universal desk calendars. His time as a travelling salesman leads him to wander for seven pages through The Official Guide of the Railways and Steam Navigation Lines of the United States, Canada, Mexico and Cuba:

The Railway Guide became Richard’s Outline of History, his Story of Philosophy. There was the Toledo, Peoria & Western (“The Peoria Road”) which doesn’t seem to go near Toledo at all on its own rails, but begins at Effner, Indiana. He found himself in imagination on a Mixed Train (“passenger service connections uncertain”) passing a long night on the way to Keokuk. Number 3 leaves Effner at 8:30 p.m. It arrives Peoria Yard at 5:20 a.m. There must be a chance for coffee and sinkers at the Peoria Yard? And he would go out on Number 103 (good old Number 103!) at 7:45, arrive at Keokuk 2:30 p.m.–“Is there a bookstore in Keokuk?” he asked Miss Mac.

And there are endless wanderings into the diverse pleasures of mid-20th century Manhattan itself: the Flatiron Building, where Roe moves his offices; the L, which Roe takes to and from work each day; the Museum of Natural History, one of his favorite haunts. And the seasons:

New York is never so lovely as in early summer. In Richard’s familiar region of Central Park West awnings burst out on apartment windows; asphalt streets feel soft under the point of a walking stick. Drug stores are draughty with electric fans, which blow out the gasoline cigar-lighter every time you snap it into flame. In the inner airshaft of apartments housewives indignantly observe little flocks of fuzz that come drifting over the sill from dustpans higher up.

In an essay on Human Being published in The American Scholar magazine back in 2003 (another reason I should have remembered the book), James McConkey described it as “more essayistic than fictional in nature.” “Within the personal essay,” McConkey writes, “subject is inseparable from authorial presence.” If the fictional framework of Human Being is slight, what does that matter in the end, if all its display windows are packed with goodies to delight the eye of the streetside passers-by?

Usually, in the interest of having material to post on a regular basis, I tend to read books quickly. With Human Being, I took my time, happy to get dragged down another side street by such an enthusiastic and amiable tour guide as Christopher Morley.

Human Being, by Christopher Morley
New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1934

Diary of a Self-Made Convict, by Alfred Hassler

Cover of the first US edition of 'Diary of a Self-Made Convict'In the spring of 1944, nearly two and a half years after registering with the Selective Service as a conscientious objector, Alfred Hassler was sentenced to three years in Federal prison for refusing to accept the draft or participate in an approved civilian program. Had his hearing been held a week later, he would have been released, as the Selective Service stopped drafting men of his age (34). Instead, however, he spent almost a year in the Lewisburg, Pennsylvania penetentiary, until he was pardoned in March 1945.

Hassler assembled his Diary of a Self-Made Convict from his prison journal and letters to his wife and friends. The book wasn’t published until almost ten years after his sentencing. It’s a unique document, as Hassler was far from a typical prisoner. A member of the staff of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, the oldest organization in the U.S. devoted to nonviolence, he was married, well-educated and, as his title indicates, something of a self-made convict in that he could have chosen to serve as a conscientious objector without going to prison.

Hassler wasn’t separated or isolated from other prisoners, and mixed freely with bank robbers, racketeers, rapists, and murderers. It’s clear he was an approachable guy who gained the trust of a wide variety of men–both prisoners and prison officials–easily, and he recorded the stories of dozens of his fellow inmates: from a black man busted for heroin use to “Nucky” Johnson, one-time political boss of Atlantic City. At the time, Federal prisons were full not just of “traditional” prisoners but also draft-dodgers, deserters, conscientious objectors and suspected spies such as members of the German Bund. As a result, Diary of a Self-Made Convict portrays a remarkable cross-section of 1940s American society, or at least a peculiar subset of it.

Although Hassler seems by nature to have been a discreet and gentle man, he is frank about the worst aspects of prison life. He notes that effeminate men are preyed upon and is approached at least once by a prisoner looking for a homosexual partner. Masturbation–or, as one of the prison’s psychologists refers to it, “learning to live with yourself”–he finds “widely–almost universally–practiced.” Racism is institutionalized, with blacks segregated from the white inmates through a variety of Jim Crow measures. He observes theft, brutality, and intimidation–and also despair:

Last night some wild geese passed overhead, flying low. Their honking was quite clear as they flew south, and for just a moment I caught a glimpse of the long “V” of their flight silhouetted against the patch of sky visible from my cubicle. At the very moment of their passage, from some other near-by cell I could barely hear the deep, almost silent sobs of one of my fellow convicts. It is no longer a novel sound, but it wrenches my whole spirit with wretchedness whenever I hear it. During the day, the men maintain the cloak of bravado in which they wrap their self-respect; at night, alone in the darkness, their grief and fright sometimes become too much for them to bear.

I suppose that the very unpopularity of their subject keeps prison books from staying in print for too long. Malcolm Braly’s classic, On the Yard, is out again as a New York Review Classic, but that’s something like the third or fourth time it’s been reissued over the course of the last forty-some years. Still, I’m surprised that Diary of a Self-Made Convict hasn’t attained at least an equal or better standing. It’s a simple, honest, objective and well-written account of prison life that makes it quite clear that even a man who made a deliberate choice to go–and then served less than a year–found it a soul-testing experience. If learning about prison is part of a basic education in life, and I think it is, then it would be tough to find a better basic text than Diary of a Self-Made Convict.

[Diary of a Self-Made Convict is, in fact, in print from a company that calls itself Literary Licensing, LLC. and appears to be a small-time operator in the direct-to-print, copyright-free publishing business. But I recommend finding a used copy instead via Amazon or AddAll.]

Diary of a Self-Made Convict, by Alfred Hassler
Chicago, Illinois: Henry Regnery Company, 1954

Worth Remembering: Books by Some of My UW Professors

Stumbling across the text of The Politics of Irish Literature, written by Malcolm Brown, who taught a survey of 20th century English novels I took in my sophomore year at the University of Washington, I was reminded of a number of my UW professors whose books qualify for a notice on this site.

My own copy of Politics has Dr. Brown’s autograph on the inside flap. Published by the University of Washington Press in 1972, it fared better than the average academic work. Reviewing for the London Evening Standard, Michael Foot wrote that, “Mr. Brown’s masterpiece has made me want to hire a nearby housetop and recite whole chunks to every passerby…,” and Sean O’Faolain called it, “A brilliant study … Reading it one feels about one the breath, warmth, and passions of the dead all come alive again.” You can find the full text of Politics and Brown’s equally well-regarded study of George Moore: A Reconsideration can be found online at, a site run by Brown’s son, Bruce.

I long ago devoted a Sources page to Roger Sales’ article, “Neglected Recent American Novels,”, from the Winter 1979 issue of The American Scholar. I took Sales’ nonfiction writing course in my junior year, and it remains the single most useful class I’ve ever had. Sales expected his students to turn in a piece of 3-5 pages on a set topic twice a week. His goal was, by sheer volume and frequency, to teach how to get from first to final draft in the shortest possible time. It’s a skill I rely upon almost every working day.

Sales’ most popular book–still in print after over 30 years–is Seattle: Past and Present, which has become the standard history of the city. His most influential book, Fairy Tales and After: From Snow White to E. B. White (Harvard Paperbacks) (1979), played a major role in bringing children’s literature into the academic curriculum and remains one of the best introductions to the subject.

Although he’d retired by the time I entered the University, Giovanni Costigan still occasionally delivered lecture series, and I had the privilege to attend one of his last, on “Makers of Modern History.” Costigan was something of a local legend for a famous 1971 debate he had with William F. Buckley on the Vietnam War. It filled the University’s Edmondson Pavilion to capacity and was broadcast on the UW’s PBS station. With his wild shock of snow-white hair, rich Irish brogue and feisty style, Costigan was quite a contrast to Buckley’s slicked-back hair and purring Eastern aristocratic tone, and even my deeply-Republican grandfather rated Costigan the winner in the end.

Costigan wrote several books, including a short biography of Freud that Colliers published in paperback in 1968 and a history of modern Ireland. Makers of Modern England: The Force of Individual Genius in History is probably the best example of Costigan’s writing. He was very much in the spirit of Thomas Carlyle and such masters of biographical sketches as Gamaliel Bradford and Stefan Zweig–perhaps not the style in favor today, but wonderful reading if you’re willing to have your historians pass judgment on their subject’s characters.

Another professor emeritus I had the honor to get to know was W. Stull Holt. I was taking a course on World War One from Dr. Donald Emerson, and for some reason my interest in the subject–and probably the fact that I was in officer training–led him to invite me to lunch with Holt one day. Holt–a former Chairman of the University’s History department and one-time head of the American Historical Assocation–had joined the American Ambulance Field Service in 1917 and served with John Dos Passos, e.e. cummings, and others on the Western Front. He enlisted in the American Army after the U.S. entered the war, trained as a pilot and bombardier, and flew with the 20th Aero Squadron.

Holt died in 1981. Almost 20 years later, his letters and diaries from the war were collected and published in The Great War at Home and Abroad: The World War I Diaries and Letters of W. Stull Holt, which is still in print from the Sunflower University Press. His best-known work as a historian, Treaties Defeated by the Senate: A Study of the Struggle Between President and Senate over the Conduct of Foreign Relations, is available as a reprint, but most of his other books, including a long series of histories of executive departments, are probably of limited interest.

Holt and Emerson first met in 1943, when Holt commanded a U.S. Army intelligence unit based in England that worked in liaison with the British M.I.9. Holt headed the team responsible for training American flight crews on escape and evasion, and worked to help Allied prisoners to escape from German P.O.W. camps. He once showed me some artifacts from that time, including playing cards with hidden maps and board games whose pieces could be assembled to form compasses and used to create forged identity documents.

While serving with Holt, Emerson was responsible for interrogating hundreds of Germans captured in fighting after D-Day, and became something of a specialist in dealing with former members of the S.S.. That experience may have helped years later when Emerson wrote his only published book, Metternich and the Political Police: Security and Subversion in the Hapsburg Monarchy (1815-1830). Although very much an academic work, it makes for chilling reading, as it demonstrates that the opening and censorship of private letters was routine–almost universal–and a primary instrument of state control back in Metternich’s time.

The last course in English I took at the UW was taught by Ivan Kolpacoff. At the time, I didn’t know much about his background, but several years later, I came across a copy of his 1967 novel, The Prisoners of Quai Dong, in the stacks of Moe’s bookstore in Berkeley. Prisoners deals with the interrogation and torture of Viet Cong prisoners by Americans in an isolated unit. Kolpacoff wrote the book without ever having set foot in Vietnam, but his account was effective and convincing, and earned the book prominent reviews in the New York Review of Books and New Republic. Irving Howe wrote of the novel, “It is completely absorbing; it focuses on a subject of large contemporary interest; it is compactly formed; and it is written with a verbal discipline that, in this moment of cultural yawp, seems remarkable.” Stanley Kauffmann found it, “The structure of the novel is simple, and therefore carefully designed. The artifice is not concealed: it is formal, innocent, classic. There is a purity in the form that perfectly fits the basic purpose of the book.” Although neither reviewer considered Prisoners to be on a par with The Red Badge of Courage, they both felt the book benefited from Kolpacoff’s lack of personal experience, in that it made his account all the more abstract and timeless. Given America’s recent experiences with Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and water-boarding, there might be an audience to interest a publisher in reissuing The Prisoners of Quai Dong.

My first course in English, by the way, was a survey of best-sellers, taught by Dr. Elinor Yaggy. She was a wonderful lecturer who loved to read out favorite passages in a booming voice that seemed as if she hoped to jam her enthusiasms into us by its sheer force. She actually managed to find something worth liking in the gawd-awful Jonathan Livingstone Seagull. She may also hold the record for the most successful book published by any of my professors, though I wouldn’t recommend it to any casual reader: her How to Write Your Term Paper went through at least four editions from Harper and Row and provided a valuable crutch to at least a generation’s worth of college students–including me.

The Widowmaker, by M. Fagyas

Cover of Dell paperback edition of 'The Widowmaker'In the opening pages of M. Fagyas’ 1966 novel, The Widowmaker, Peter Kozma staggers into his hamlet of Ladany in Hungary after seven years of being away at the Russian front with the Austro-Hungarian army and then a prisoner of the Russians. Instead of the warm homecoming he had imagined thousands of times over those years, his wife eyes him coldy.

“‘It’s me–I’ve come back!’ he finally managed to squeeze out the words.

“‘So I see,’ she said as unemotionally as if he had been away only five minutes.”

While her husband has been away, his wife Tereza has had to manage their small farm on her own, and after some struggle, succeeded in doing better than Peter had–adding a few acres to their parcel. Some free labor–and later some company in bed–from a Russian prisoner, Nicolai, helped–and helped change her perspective on her marriage.

Within a few days of his return, Peter is found dead. The suspicions of a local constable are raised, particularly after he finds their cat buried in the yard, the apparent victim of arsenic poisoning.

He fails to find enough evidence to arrest her, but over the course of the next months, other men in Ladany and surrounding towns start dying in suspicious circumstances–many betraying signs of arsenic poisoning. He suspects the local abortionist of supplying the arsenic and also of instigating the murders. But he also runs into a wall of silence among the women.

Although The Widowmaker is on one level a straightforward detective story, if in an unusual setting, it’s also a somewhat gruesome twist on Aristophanes’ feminist satire, Lysistrata–only in this case, the women take revenge on their men for the pain and disruption caused to their lives through war, physical abuse, alcoholism, and laziness by something a little more ruthless than just withholding sex.

As other readers have noted (see the comments in this post on The Devil’s Lieutenant), Fagyas had a knack for writing the kinds of books that you pick up and don’t put down until you’ve finished it hours later. In my case, I had the advantage of a transatlantic flight, but reading The Widowmaker was a four-hour blur to me. Her prose is nothing out of the ordinary, but she was clearly at home in a world in which bloodlines ran back centuries, where the importance of the ownership of even the barest scraps of land could drive people insane, and and when layers of customs were only just beginning to be stripped away by the twentieth century, and the novel gains most of its power from her mastery of her setting.

Many thanks to Karen Ronan for passing along her copies of The Widowmaker and The Devil’s Lieutenant.

The Widowmaker, by M. Fagyas
New York City: Doubleday, 1966

Brown Face, Big Master, by Joyce Gladwell

Cover of first UK paperback edition of 'Brown Face, Big Master'Knowing I would have the chance to hear Malcolm Gladwell speak at the PMI Global Congress last week, I stuck the fairly beat-up paperback copy of his mother Joyce’s 1969 memoir, Brown Face, Big Master, in my backpack and read it on the plane from Amsterdam to Dallas.

Aside from the family connection, Joyce Gladwell’s book has little in common with her son’s best-sellers. Although Brown Face, Big Master has been reissued by MacMillan Caribbean as part of its series of Caribbean Classics, it was first published by InterVarsity Press, the publishing arm of the InterVarsity Fellowship, and its focus is very much on tracing the development of the author’s faith and relationship with God, with a lesser theme of coming to grips with racism in its overt–and more often, subtly covert–forms.

The child of the principal and one of the teachers of a rural Jamaican school, Joyce Gladwell (nee Nation) grew up relatively isolated from the society around her. Her schoolmates were cautious not to get too friendly with Joyce or her twin sister, fearing that any secrets shared would find their way back to the school’s master. She and her sister were then sent to St. Hilary’s, a strict, though integrated, girls’ school, where the students were instructed to avoid speaking with the school’s staff and where private screenings were arranged in the local cinema to ensure no “inappropriate” contact with local boys.

St. Hilary’s had high standards, high moral standards, high standards of social behavior. We learned to believe in these standards, to accept them as the best, to live by them and to pass them on without compromise. I gave my unquetioning loyalty to St. Hilary’s. This was what I wanted–to belong, to be identified, to be approved, and St. Hilary’s filled that need.

Adding to school’s artificial isolation was Joyce’s own severe inhibitions. “I made myself comfortable in the security of being told exactly what to do and I was pleased to abdicate responsibility for my actions.” The cocoon was further extended when, shortly after graduation, she was asked to return as a teacher, and stayed for three more years, until she was offered a partial scholarship to London University.

Although she joined her twin sister, who had started at the university two years before, Joyce knew she was ill-prepared for the move from a sheltered girls’ school in Jamaica to a major university in the heart of one of the world’s great cities. “The world of people–that was where the trouble lay,” she writes. She proved an excellent student, and gradually, with the help of acquaintances in the school’s InterVarsity chapter, came out of her shell.

She fell in love with a fellow student, Graham Gladwell, a mathematician and InterVarsity member. Graham’s parents were initially resistant to the idea of their marrying, but eventually softened (“All marriages are mixed,” a family friend quipped). Still …

The moments of embarrassment that we feared did come. On one of our early visits to my parents-in-law, an old friend of the family called after long absence. We stood together with Graham’s sisters as Dad identified each one of his now grown family. “And Joyce, Graham’s wife,” he ended.

The visitor searched the faces round him in silence, seeking and failing to find the extra one that suited that description. We were paralysed by the dread realized, caught unprepared in an aberrant social moment for which the rules did not prescribe.

The couple went through some tough years, with Joyce struggling simultaneously with motherhood (she had had little preparation in domestic matters), long dreary grey English winters, and an ever-present undercurrent of prejudice. Finally, after a number of years and the birth of her third child–Malcolm–she had a breakthrough when she turned to God after a local boy shouted “Nigger” at her one afternoon. Ironically, she found her prayers answered not in understanding but in a challenge: “He showed Himself to be not only love giving Himself for me even to death, but also jealous God making demands on me”–demands to which she was now ready to yield.

Brown Face, Big Master is a restrained, subdued memoir, marked more than anything by a pervasive sense of humility. It is not at all an evangelical account: Joyce Gladwell’s own faith came to her gradually, over the course of many years, and with more than a few set-backs, and she makes no claims or and sets no expectations for others. In that respect, it is an account of one person’s faith that even non-believers can appreciate.

Brown Face, Big Master, by Joyce Gladwell
London & Chicago: Inter-Varsity Press, 1969

Fred Allen’s Letters

Fred Allen on the air for NBCFred Allen. To ninety-nine out of a hundred people under the age of sixty, that name means about as much as John Smith or Jane Doe. I recognize it because I was suckered into sending off for one of those old-time radio compilations they used to hawk at every other commercial break during the Saturday afternoon showing of old movies featuring W. C. Fields, Mae West and the Marx Brothers. One of the records included a routine from “Allen’s Alley,” Allen’s hit NBC radio comedy series from the 1940s, that was full of fine and horrible puns, barbed put-downs, and various other antics, all delivered at machine-gun speed.

Allen’s nervous energy seems not to have been just an act, and he burned himself out early, dropping dead of a heart attack on a New York street at the age of 61. He’d made the switch from radio to TV and was a regular on “What’s My Line?” but he’d also slipped from star to wise-cracking character on a show that, hit though it was, was still just a game show. Had he survived into the 1960s or 1970s, he might have been remembered as well as Jack Benny.

Cover of first US edition of 'Fred Allen's Letters'In 1965, Doubleday published a collection on Allen’s letters edited by Joe McCarthy (no relation to the Senator): Fred Allen’s Letters. I use the word “edited” because that’s what it says on the jacket. I suspect he just tossed a boxful of the letters down a staircase and let that determine his sequence. The book is divided into sections with titles such as “The Early Days,” “Old Friends,” and “Show Biz People,” but there’s no particular rhyme or reason to what goes where.

Not that it makes much of a difference. There’s a certain appropriateness in the randomness of the selections that fits with Allen’s sense of humor, and it guarantees you never know quite what’s coming next.

Allen composed at the typewriter and rarely bothered with the shift key, so these letters might remind some of Don Marquis’ The Annotated Archy and Mehitabel (which is a Penguin Classic now–wow). I’ve kept this book by the bedside, dipping into every few nights, and my wife is heartily sick of having me shake the bed with muffled chuckling.

Here are a couple of samples to whet your appetite:

To Mabel Dawson (a fan)

dear miss dawson …

thank you for your letter.

you will be glad to learn that the honey arrived in excellent condition. portland had some at breakfast yesterday and reported it was the best she had ever tasted.

we don’t get much honey here in new york. we have had one bee for some time. we have no flowers and have to let him out to sneak into the various floral shops in the neighborhood. i think our bee is nearsighted. it must spend a lot of time on artificial flowers, for the amount of honey it gives some months is negligible.

our bee has no comb. it carries the honey on its person. when we want honey we summon the bee, point to the biscuit, or whatever object we want honey on, the bee flies to the table, squats and buzzes a little and when it arises we have about enough honey to float a caraway seed.

we can imagine what a boon it is to us to have three large jars of honey. we are sending our bee down to florida for a good rest this winter. i am sure that when it returns, brown and healthy, it will be ready to pick up where it left off and keep us in honey for years to come.

we are having a difficult time finding guests to use on the program but i guess we will manage to keep going some way during the coming season. if not, some week, i may put our bee on the show and there will be a real b on n.b.c.

To Ed Simmons and Norman Lear (yes, that Norman Lear), two comedy writers who had sent Allen a joke letter asking his permission to start a polish fan club.

… for many years, i have been against fan clubs. i remember back in 1902 a group of girls got together in littleton, new hampshire, to form a guy kibbee fan club. mr. kibbee, even at that early age was as bald as a boy scout’s knee, and the girls all shaved their heads to look like their idol. all through the summer the little baldheaded girls had a jolly time. they had guy kibbee meetings, they talked like guy kibbee and when field days were held the fan club would rush out and spell guy kibbee in different formations and in different languages. with their little bald heads they were a shiny sight. when the cold weather arrived, however, it was another story. thirty of the baldheaded girls contracted penumonia and within three months the entire guy kibbee fan club was wiped out.

that is only one reason i hesitate to sponsor a fan club. if beri beri or scurvy breaks out in your group how is it going to look with little emaciated bodies lying around the streets of california wearing my fan club buttons.

Fred Allen’s Letters, edited by Joe McCarthy
New York City: Doubleday, 1965.

The Survivor, by Carl Marzani

I have to admit that I rarely pick up a book without at least Googling its title, confirming that it’s out of print, and checking if it has at some time had something favorable written about it. Finding Carl Marzani’s The Survivor in a $1 book box outside a bookstore while getting my son settled at Drexel University last month, however, I bought it and then stuck it in my backpack for the flight back to Brussels without the usual due diligence.Cover of first edition of "The Survivor" by Carl Marzani

One could argue that it’s best to approach a book with as little prior knowledge as possible, to prevent one’s perceptions from being contaminated by others’. After almost 50 years of reading, however, that’s almost impossible for me. Turning the first pages of The Survivor while sitting in the passenger lounge of the Philadelphia airport–and then through much of the seven hour flight home–was the closest I’ve come to an unadulterated encounter with a book in many years.

The Survivor starts strongly and I read the first hundred pages almost without a break. Marc Ferranti, a senior State Department official, has been asked to appear before a departmental hearing on his fitness for maintaining his security clearance. Although a veteran of the Official of Special Services (OSS)–the wartime pre-cursor to the Central Intelligence Agency–Ferranti had been an activist as a student in the 1930s. He left a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford to join the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting against Franco in the Spanish Civil War, and after his return to the U.S., he dabbled with membership in the Communist Party. Having sniffed out his radical connections, the department’s security officers want to make a showcase of Ferranti, anticipating President Truman’s decision to require Federal government employees to sign a loyalty oath.

The hearing is chaired by former Senator Richard Aldrich Bassett, a liberal Virginia Republican in his eighties. Much of the novel focuses on the meeting of minds between Bassett and Ferranti. Although a symbol of the American Establishment, Bassett had been strongly influenced by the Populist views of Tom Watson, a Populist politician from Georgia he ranks with Jefferson and Eugene V. Debs as the most important radicals in American history. An ally of FDR and recently-appointed Secretary of State George C. Marshall, Bassett is repulsed by the tactics of the Red-baiters now rising within the Truman administration and Congress. Through the efforts of his superior, an assistant secretary, Ferranti has learned that Bassett is, at least in principle, sympathetic to his case.

By far the strongest elements of The Survivor are the conversations and reflections of Bassett and Ferranti on the realities of politics and power in Washington:

“… You do not know much about the art of compromise, perhaps, but I do. Indeed I do. The Senate is the finest training ground for the art. You thunder no, and you murmur yes. Everyone saves face, always, everyone obtains a little of what he wants, alway. Compromise is the very soul of statemanship. The one time it failed in America we had a civil war, and the fault, in my judgment, lay squarely in the lack of a compromiser in the South, for the North had one of the greatest compromisers in our history: Mr. Lincoln.”

The Survivor takes place over the course of the three days of Ferranti’s hearing. The novel was Marzani’s first and only attempt at fiction, and one of the many ways in which this shows is the amount of activity he manages to shoe-horn into less than seventy-two hours.

Another is the awkward use of an manuscript Ferranti has written–a novel about his early years in America as an immigrant child. Ferranti believes he’s been singled out for persecution in an attempt by the Catholic Church to ally itself with reactionary forces within the Federal government, aided by his brother, a conservative Congressman. Ferranti manages to pass along the manuscript to Bassett, who then reads it in what appears to be one marathon evening. The passion and truth of Ferranti’s novel tugs at long-dormant radical allegiances within Bassett, and also evokes an empathy for the plight of foreigners learning to survive in America.

By this point, two hundred or so pages into The Survivor, my initial interest began to shift toward irritation. Through much of the middle of the book, Marzani tries to weave the narrative of Ferranti’s encounters between sessions of the hearing, the text of the manuscript, and Bassett’s reflections on Ferranti’s novel and life. It all becomes a rat’s nest I doubt anyone should ever bother to unravel.

In the end, Ferranti passes muster, keeping his job and opening up his chance to move on up the State Department ladder. Bassett is driven home to his Virginia estate, wondering if he hasn’t failed to live up to the radical ideals of his early mentor, Tom Watson: “The men and women his era has shunned and ridiculed might well turn out to be the precursors of a new life, a new country, perhaps a new civilization.” And this last line should give you a strong hint that The Survivor has a lot more in common with the works of Tom Clancy than those of Camus or even Koestler. It’s certainly not well-written or constructed, although I would say that it’s full of fine observations of bureaucratic manners.

Only after finishing The Survivor did I have a chance to research the book, and that’s when things became really interesting.

Carl Marzani, around 1958
Carl Marzani, it turns out, bore more than a little resemble to his fictional counterpart, Marc Ferranti. Like Ferranti, he was born in Italy and emigrated with his family to the U.S. in his early teens. He excelled academically, earned a scholarship to Oxford, and left to fight in the Spanish Civil War with the Lincoln Brigade. He did not just dabble with Communism: he joined it outright and worked as an organizer in the late 1930s. After the U.S. entered the Second World War, he was recruited into the OSS and then moved over to the State Department.

As early as 1942, he was questioned by the FBI about his Communist Party membership. Feeling secure in the support of his OSS superiors and reluctant to give up his position, he lied. There were no immediate consequences.

In 1946, however, he was questioned again and determined to have perjured himself. In instructing Marzani’s jury, his judge said: “This court is not concerned with Communist vices. The issue is whether the defendant knowingly, willfully and feloniously made false statements to Government loyalty examiners.” Although he appealed all the way to the Supreme Court, his conviction was upheld and he served three years in prison. While in Federal prison, he wrote We Can Be Friends, a call to reserve the policies of the Truman Administration–influenced by George Kennan and others–to contain the Soviet Union’s expansions and maintain a relatively hostile diplomatic stance.

After being released from jail, Marzani worked as a professor of economics, a film producer, and co-owner of an independent publishing house, Marzani and Munsell. According to KGB archives, as detailed in The Sword and the Shield: The Mitrokhin Archive and the Secret History of the KGB, Marzani was also a Soviet agent, operating under the code name of NORD. His firm owed at least some of its financial backing to the KGB, in return for publishing such sympathetic titles as Cuba vs. the C.I.A., which Marzani co-authored with Robert Light.

Marzani published The Survivor–before he began taking money from the KGB, it appears, but not long enough after the McCarthy era to have much chance of getting any recognition in the mainstream press. About the only magazine in the U.S. to take note of its publication was New World Review, the journal of the Friends of the Soviet Union. Although David Caute calls The Survivor “the best and one of the most important novels” of the Cold War in his recent book, Politics and the Novel during the Cold War, there appear to be few considerations of the book not colored by sympathy or distaste for Marzani’s own history.

Which leads one to wonder what Marzani intended to accomplish in writing it. Marzani may have been a victim of Red-baiting, but he doesn’t appear to have been an entirely innocent one, and The Survivor isn’t really an attempt to exonerate or justify himself. Although Marc Ferranti is portrayed as an exceptionally bright and shrewd operative, his actions are often more self-serving than heroic. If the book has any heroic figure, it’s Marc’s sister, Tessie, who shows herself ready to fight for both Party and family.

It could be that the novel was an experimental foray into autobiography. In the late 1980s, Marzani began writing a memoir titled The Education of a Reluctant Radical. It eventually spanned five volumes: Book 1: Roman Childhood; Book 2: Growing Up American; Book 3: Spain, Munich and Dying Empires; Book 4: From Pentagon to Penitentiary; Book 5: Reconstruction. The first volume, with an introduction by Italo Calvino, was published by the Topical Press in 1993, shortly before Marzani’s death in 1994. The last volume was not published until 2001, but is still available from Amazon.

The Survivor: A Novel, by Carl Marzani
New York City: Cameron Associates, 1958

Fables by Modern Writers

After enjoying Seumas O’Brien’s daft collection of fables, The Whale and the Grasshopper, I realized that I should take a moment to acknowledge the small (naturally) collection of fables by other modern writers that I have been assembling over the last few years.

According to Wikipedia,

A fable is a succinct fictional story, in prose or verse, that features animals, mythical creatures, plants, inanimate objects, or forces of nature which are anthropomorphized (given human qualities), and that illustrates a moral lesson (a “moral”), which may at the end be expressed explicitly in a pithy maxim.

A fable differs from a parable in that the latter excludes animals, plants, inanimate objects, and forces of nature as actors that assume speech and other powers of humankind.

Not every writer who’s called his little pieces fables has observed this distinction. Marvin Cohen’s fables, for example, always take place in the world of men and their imaginations, with rarely if ever a critter to be found in them. The greatest of all modern fabulists, George Ade, never thought to disguise his small tales of man’s pretensions and predicaments by cloaking his characters in animal costumes. And though most do keep their fables within the 3-4 pages or less that’s considered the limits of the form, some stretch out to as many as twenty or more.

The one thing modern fabulists do seem to share is the sense that the didactic purpose of fables should always be taken with a grain of salt. It might be that a life could be bettered by their lessons, but it’s more likely that people will keep on making the same mistakes–for which the fabulist ought to be grateful, as it ensures a steady of new material. And few modern writers imagine that readers will take their words as seriously as did Aesop. Instead, they recognize that pointing out that the Emperor has no clothes doesn’t mean that the rest of the crowd won’t happily go on pretending he does.

Black Sheep and Other Fables, by Augusto Monterroso

Cover of 'The Black Sheep and Other Fables'If a fable is a “succinct fictional story,” then the fables of the Guatemalan writer Augusto Monterroso are easily the most succinct examples to be found. Monterroso is said to have written the world’s shortest short story: “And when he woke up, the dinosaur was still there.” In his fables, he stretches out a bit more–but not much. Here, for instance, is the complete text of “The Imperfect Paradise”:

“It’s true,” the man said with a melancholy air, his gaze fixed on the flames dancing in the fireplace that winter night; “in Paradise there are friends, music, some books. The only bad thing about going to Heaven is that from there you can’t look up.”

Monterroso switches back and forth from man to animals in his stories. It’s fitting that he takes as the epigraph to this collection a quote from one K’nyo Mobutu: “So much are animals like man that at times it is impossible to distinguish between them.” And it’s fitting that when you look into the index, the entry for Mobutu contains the parenthetical note, “Anthropophagite.” Cannibal. So the joke is on us–he’s not referring to how we behave: he’s referring to how we taste.

Monterroso’s love of jest seems all the more remarkable when you learn that he was jailed as a member of the opposition and spent most of his adult life in exile. While his tales are often satirical, there is never any bitterness in his tone. Indeed, his response to oppression is to note the same flaws it shares with every other human endeavor. It’s hard for me to believe that the following wasn’t meant as a reflection on the CIA’s interference in Guatemalan politics:

Once upon a time there was a Lightning Bolt which struck twice in the same place; but it discovered that it had done enough damage the first time, and that it was no longer needed, and it became very depressed.

Onion Soup and Other Fables, by R. O. Blechman

Blechman, whose stable of fans is much smaller but no less fervid than that of his fellow New Yorker illustrator, William Steig, published this slim collection of cartoon fables back in 1964, but most of his topics (e.g., “Gluttony”) are timeless.

The Zebra Storyteller: Collected Stories, by Spencer Holst

Although none of Spencer Holst’s various story collections had the word “fable” in their titles, he’s still inarguably the leading American fabulist of the late 20th century. Luckily, his tales have been collected from a half-dozen out of print books and are available in paperback from Barrytown Limited (part of Station Hill Press). And a number can be found online, including “The Language of Cats,” “The Zebra Storyteller,” and “On Demons”. And here you can read his shortest and loveliest fable, “Mona Lisa Meets Buddha”:

Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, the curtains fluttered, and the Mona Lisa entered at one end of a small hall, which was hung with many veils. Up in heaven the curtains fluttered, fluttered, fluttered, and the Buddha entered the hall at the other end. They smiled.

Holst and his wife, Beate Wheeler, were painters and benefited greatly from a rare example of civic generosity towards artists: the Westbeth housing complex for artists in west Greenwich Village in Manhattan. He often appeared in city clubs and galleries to tell his stories, which he also–to our fortune–took the time to write down. There is, at times, a slight flavor of Roald Dahl in Holst’s tales, such as the one about the man who takes a woman in a bat mask home from a costume party … only to discover that, um … it’s not a mask. But Holst has none of Dahl’s cutting cynicism–if his princess refuses to marry the frog because he turns out to be a junkie–well, could anyone who’d lived in the Village for forty-some years have blamed her?

The Last of the Redskins, by Jean Dutourd

Cover of 'The Last of the Redskins'“When I learned to read ‘good books,'” Jean Dutourd writes in the foreword to this collection–also from 1964–“I was constantly and badly deceived. I read charming stories with happy endings.” The problem, of course, is that real life is nothing like these pleasant stories: “Everyone knows that the world of children is a universe of ferocious beasts, where naked force and cowardice flourish.”

So Dutourd’s response was to create a set of fables that reflect “how things really take place in this world where financiers are generally happier than cobblers….” He leads off, appropriately, with “Poverty Does Not Make Happiness,” in which a cobbler gains a little cash windfall that eases the worst of his worries and his wife is wise enough to advise him not to try to repay it. In Dutourd’s version of Cinderella, the prince is not the least bit charming: “fifty-three years old, wore eyeglasses, and had very set habits.” And, as Cinderella learns after the wedding, the whole affair was designed by the husband to get a free governess for his three kids so he would have more time to spend with his mistress of many years.

Some of Dutourd’s fables are so cold-blooded as to verge on the cruel. In “Two Amputated Legs,” Georges, whose legs are blown off by an enemy hand grenade, learns “that the fate of man is to lose, successively, legs, eyes, arms, love, years, memories, and never to find them again.” On the other hand, he has a certain cynical faith in the future. In “Pearls Before Swine,” a man literally tosses handfuls of pearls into a pen full of pigs. “But all that treasure gone to waste!” cries an observer. “Bah,” the man replies. “Nothing is altogether wasted…. The dung heap is full of them…. And when I am dead, there will be a rich harvest.”

Fables at Lifes Expense, by Marvin Cohen

Cohen is easily the most obscure writer in this bunch. Only one of his seven or eight books–The Monday Rhetoric of the Love Club & Other Parables (yes, he does parables, too)–is in print, and that thanks to the astonishing fidelity of New Directions Press to its writers. It hasn’t helped that he’s given his books such titles as, Others, Including Morstive Sternbump: A Novel.

No less a figure than Thomas Merton, however, once said, “Marvin Cohen’s wacky humor, has something of Thurber, something of Steinberg, Buster Keaton, the Surrealists, the French pataphysicians.” Another reviewer has called him a surrealist puppeteer, and it’s an accurate description, as Cohen’s characters are more like puppets he moves through absurd situations than full-fleshed people.

I don’t know if Cohen is still alive, but I recommend checking out any of his books if you enjoy seeing logic and language at play in the hands of a master juggler.

99 Fables, by William March

William March’s work was nothing if not variable. His first novel, Company K, now considered a classic work about World War One, was a collection of sketches of all the men in a single company of Marines. Nearly 20 years later, he published perhaps the greatest novel about l’enfant terrible, The Bad Seed. And in between he wrote over a hundred fables, which he edited down to 99 shortly before his death. Collected and edited by William T. Going, it was first published by the University of Alabama Press in 1960. Although it fell out of print for some years, it was reissued earlier this year by the University press as part of its “Library of Alabama Classics.”

Of all the modern fabulists, March held closest to the model of Aesop. The majority of his tales take place in the animal world–“The Insulted Rabbit,” “The Escaped Elephant,” “The Wild Horses,” and “The Kissless Lovebird,” for example. But he also delves into the human situation directly, even making Aesop a lead character in several fables. And of all the writers discussed here, March is certainly the bitterest in his outlook, as might be expected of a man who spent most of his working life being referred to as a neglected writer.

By the way, if your taste does run to parables rather than fables, I highly recommend locating Howard Schwartz’s anthology, Imperial Messages, first published in 1976 and reissued in 1991, which collects 100 parables from writers ranging from Dostoyevsky and Borges to Kobo Abe and Marvin Cohen.

Recent Reader Recommendations

I’ve received a bumper crop of recommendations in the last month, including a few titles that are new to me (an increasingly rare treat). So I want to offer a consolidated list with some commentary from the submitters and others, in hopes that others will seek out this forgotten gems.

The Trees of Zharka, by Nancy MackenrothCover of 'The Trees of Zharka'

Allison Kassig wrote to recommend two books well off the SF mainstream that she came across in an odd lot of paperbacks she’d bought. I’ll quote from her own review, which appears to be one of the very few–professional or amateur–that this intriguing book has ever received:

I intended to try to locate the author, Nancy Mackenroth, after I finished reading her book for the first time. I thought she’d like to know that her book was still being read, and if I found more books by her I’d put them on my “To Read” list. Unfortunately she died of ALS less than a year ago. But her work lives on, and is worth reading. The Trees of Zharka is a fast read: that alone is a relief from the bloated over-long books so often published today. I don’t read much sci-fi, especially novels, but decided to start working my way through a box lot I bought years ago. (The second one I’ve read from there was also well worth reading). The book easily escaped being outdated by new technologies because technology isn’t very relevant: this is book about characters, human nature, right and wrong, and ideas. Two mysteries compelled me. One is the mystery the main character is driven to solve, although that knowledge is both forgotten and forbidden. The other was what would have put this idea in the author’s mind. Why would she think to write about a Puritanical society ruled by priests who maintain a grove of sacred trees? In the end I knew the answer: Mackenroth may have started with the ending. The people of Zharka are the descendants of emigrants from Earth. What happened seemed dated at first, but we’re not that much advanced from the world of 1975. I could easily imagine this story as a Twilight Zone episode (hour long). I started to say that The Trees of Zharka deserves not only to be remembered, but to be read. But I don’t really look at it that way. I’m glad I had the opportunity to read a provocative story about redemption.

The Eskimo Invasion, by Hayden HowardCover of 'The Eskimo Invasion'

From what I can gather about this book, which like Mackenroth’s, appears to have been the author’s only published novel, it’s a tongue-in-cheek satire of conspiracy theorists and the kind of “they’re after us” paranoia that inspired the Red Scare, McCarthy’s witchhunts, Nixon’s enemies lists, and George W. Bush’s world view. Allison’s Amazon review provides a good overview:

Despite its almost 400 pages this 44-year-old sci fi novel is a fascinating page-turner. I’ve forgotten more books than most people ever read, but this one has two (at least) unforgettable scenes. I’ll leave one for you to discover for yourself, but you shouldn’t miss an incredible description of the history of the world as read in the fossil record–from the bottom up. Start digging more than a half-mile down in the Earth, and take the trip upward from the dinosaurs on. Very well written, full of provocative ideas, and answers a question no one else ever asked: Are the Esks Eskimos, or are they not even human at all? This is a good-humored read with scenes of terror. If that seems contradictory, it’s because Howard takes us on a wild trip (it’s 1967, remember?) from Canada to Berkeley to China, from the CIA to the latest in penology, from cryogenics to mind control, with a poignant look at the law of unintended consequences. True to the era, bureaucracy is skewered, and political correctness takes a prescient beating. This one sat in a box lot of old sci fi paperbacks in my garage for years, until I had the good sense to give it a try. And found I couldn’t put it down. How many other great books are out there to be discovered? If you want to join me in finding out, you won’t go wrong with trying this one.

Salt of the Earth, by Jozef Wittlin

Writing from Sweden, Bengt Broström recommed the anti-war novel “Sol ziemi” (1936), which was published in English as Salt of the Earth in 1939, by the
Polish author Jozef Wittlin (1896-1976): “With its mixture of irony, sarcasm, parody and the grotesque it is simple brilliant, It is not in print but used copies are can be bought online.” At the time of the book’s first publication in English, Charles Neider wrote of it in the Virginia Quarterly Review,

Peter Neviadomski is a wonderful person, someone never to be forgotten. A railway porter in a little Galician town, the most he wants of life is an official railway cap (to permit him to salute people), a cottage with a mouse-trap and cheese and a bride with a dowry.

Wittlin’s irony is Biblical as compared with Thomas Mann’s, for example, which is musical. His irony and quiet fury are those of the idealistic ascetic steeped in the Old Testament and the Odyssey. His compassion for the ignorant and lowly of the earth, breathed into his work, imparts to it a glowing poetic quality and a sublimity of soul that may well be treasured in these troubled times. This first volume takes Peter Neviadomski through the ordeals of mobilization and preparation for the front. It is a volume to be read again and again. It has the satisfying quality of good music.

Salt of the Earth was to have been the first of a series of novels to be known as “The Saga of the Patient Footsoldier,” but Wittlin abandoned the effort during World War Two and never published another work of fiction.

In This Sign, by Joanne Greenberg

Poet Greg Baysans wrote in to recommend a book that’s in print but that’s been mentioned more than a few times as a life-long favorite by others who’ve contacted me. As Greg puts it, “Written by Joanne Greenberg (whose “I Never Promised You A Rose Garden” I had read previously, perhaps as an 8th or 9th grader, and which is more well-known; she also has published under the nom de plume Hannah Green), the book is In This Sign. The story of two deaf parents and their children, it takes place just before, during and after the Great Depression. I am impressed again by Greenberg’s ability to take the reader into these character’s world and get a real sense of what it must be like to have to learn language without the sense of hearing. While not particularly deep or philosophical, it is very well written and compelling, not saccharine at all. I’m anxious to finish it again, all these years later.”

Equal Distance, by Brad Leithauser

Andrew Kozelka wrote to suggest Brad Leithauser’s first novel, Equal Distance, which amazingly has been out of print for over twenty years. As Andrew write, Leithauser’s “still alive and has written a half-dozen novels since; this is the only one I’ve read so far. I have to say it’s the best novel I’ve found in the sub-genre of ‘westerners in Japan’—as someone who has lived there I can attest that he gets everything right—but it’s also just a great read and a very fine novel. The reviews at the time were enthusiastic. I really feel it is more than worthy to be brought back into print. Unfortunately, these days publishers won’t do that unless a later novel becomes a top seller or, perhaps, there’s reader demand.”

The Devil’s Lieutenant, by M. FagyasCover of 'The Devil's Lieutenant'

Writing from Los Angeles, Karen forwarded some information on “a book I have admired for years”: The Devil’s Lieutenant, by M. Fagyas. “This lurid cover is misleading because the book is not pulp fiction.I bought it at a library sale and since bought all books by this author (unfortunately, there weren’t many). You may be interested in its (few) Amazon reviews which are all 5 stars.”

At the time of its first publication, The Devil’s Lieutenant received not one but two separate and enthusiastic reviews in the New York Times. W.G. Rogers wrote that Fagyas had “packed her novel with strain, tension, suspense–and, to boot, a wealth of political and historical relevance.” Thomas Lask called it, “a top-drawer psychological thriller that unrolls like a whodunit, so artfully constructed, so smoothly readable that you will find yourself devouring it at a single sitting.”

M. Fagyas was the pen name of Marika Bush-Fekete, who came to the U.S. with her husband, Ladislasz Bush-Fekete, a Jewish Hungarian playwright who’d collaborated with Franz Werfel and had success with his own plays in Budapest and Vienna. She began writing in the earlier 1960s to try to earn a living. Her first novel, The Fifth Woman, published in 1963, earned an Edgar Award, although it was–as were all of hers–a mix of historical fiction and mystery. In the case of the The Devil’s Lieutenant, the mystery is why ten members of an elite Austro-Hungarian Army unit had died from swallowing cyanide capsules. To quote another reader’s Amazon review,

The “detective” in the novel is Captain Kunze, a judge advocate, who investigates the case.

You get a fine view of Austria and especially Vienna in 1909. War is in the air, and there is an appetite for the army to invade the Balkans. What is particularly interesting is the portrayal of social life in the Kaiserlich und Koniglich officer corps, and that the case is handled by the military rather than the civilian police. Emperor Franz Josef is not anti-semetic and does not want war: his son, Archduke Ferdinand is the opposite. Both want the case handled so it doesn’t reflect bady on the army. Kunze finds a suspect, who was 18th in the class and thus not promoted and given a position in the General Staff. But in military cases, circumstantial evidence is not sufficient for a death sentence, unlike a civilian case. Better evidence or a confession is needed, or, preferably, the suspect is put in a room with a loaded revolver with the suggestion about doing the honorable thing.

In another Fagyas novel, The Widowmaker, veterans of the First World War returning to their home village come to bad ends as their wives try to preserve the independence and social status they attained during the long years of the husbands’ absences at the front. Reading through a variety of reviews of all of Fagyas’ six novels while preparing this post, I ended up adding at least three of her titles to my Wish List.

Sweepings, by Lester Cohen

Eric Stott wrote in with great enthusiasm for Lester Cohen’s first Sweepings, a book he’s stumbled across and was still reading at the time of his note:

This 1926 book was a huge critical and popular success. It was made into an excellent film in the 1930’s–a King Lear-like story of a man who builds up a department store only to find his children have no interest: they sell off their shares and the faithful (but long suffering) store manager secretly buys them and saves the store from ruin. Sounds simple and heartwarming–right?

Well, the book is another thing. It’s a sprawling example of the realist novel as spawned by Dreiser with a lot of psychological touches that Hollywood wouldn’t have been able to deal with at the period. There’s a woman who’s had repeated abortions until her doctor refuses to perform another. When she does get pregnant her mind seems to unhinge. She idly cuts herself and dabs spots of blood on her face and clothing. The eldest son is a Good Old Boy type who idles through life, cheating on his wife with a series of prostitutes- one of whom wants him to hit her hard before sex. He does fall in love (after a fashion) with one girl (who he likens to a whipped cream confection) and when confronted by his father declares “She’s as good a woman as my wife!” (“she probably is” thinks the father, who doesn’t like his daughter in law much). When the son breaks off the relationship the girl fires a shot at him which goes wild and kills his best friend. He escapes recognition but develops an eating disorder in an effort to block out the memories.

But he never could forget. The thing would come back and come back. Violet, the whipped cream woman; his smashing her; the fury that drove her to shoot; the form of his friend that had fallen like a punctured balloon. These things would force themselves to his lips Like one who downs a specter rising out of a grave by throwing another shovelful of sod over it, he ate another steak. For hours he would feel gorged and drowsy. Then those fancies would fight their way back through the fog of food. He would feel his lips atremble. Then controlling himself he would trundle into the nearest restaurant.

The book as a whole seems a bit overwritten (it was the author’s first novel and feels like one) but at times it comes vividly to life like a vignette of Christmas sales at the store:

Above the stamping and surging of the bargain hunting mobs sounded the groans of the sales machine. There was a frantic clamoring for “Cashgirl! Cashgirl!” Clerks at counters in the same departments were appealing, threatening, shouting for shoppers to buy. Each clerk had a quota that night. If the quota were not met–… Each clerk shuddered at the thought, pulled at the arm of a bargain hunter, cried “Buy it here! Here ya are! A doll for the baby. Was ninety-nine cents. Take her home for a dime!”

This may not be a neglected classic, but so far it’s worth reading.

Religion and the Decline of Magic, by Keith Thomas

Last but not least is one that comes not from a reader’s email but from a recent listing in The Week magazine’s regular feature in which noted authors are asked to name a half-dozen or so favorite books. A few weeks ago, English novelist Penelope Lively named, among her other titles, which are usually fairly well known and widely available in print, . Of it, she said, “I read a lot of history, and this 40-year-old work is the kind I’d been waiting for without knowing it—history that examines how people behaved in the past and why. Focused on England, it brought the 16th and 17th centuries alive for me.”

Religion and the Decline of Magic is a massive tome, nearly 900 pages, devoted to the efforts of the Church of England to stamp out all aspects of folk myths and rituals in the 16th and 17th centuries. Commenting on the book ten years after its first publication in 1971, Paul Slack wrote “History Today”: “Few historians have that ability to surprise and convince with unfailing regularity, to say something absolutely original and make it seem self-evident. That is why Religion and the Decline of Magic remains a commanding work, one of the three or four outstanding pieces of historical writing to have appeared in the last thirty years.”

Dictatorial Literature

Muammar Gaddafi reading his Green BookWherever Muammar Gaddafi may be at the moment and whatever may be left of his powers as a dictator, it’s safe to predict that the number of readers of his famous “Green Book”–or, to call it by its full title, The Green Book: The Solution to the Problem of Democracy, The Solution to the Economic Problem, The Social Basis of the Third Universal Theory–is headed for a swift decline. Such is the fate of long, dull, dogmatic diatribes written in the oxygen-thin atmosphere of absolute power (and without the benefit of an impartial editor) when one can no longer command them to be handed out in triplicate to all of one’s subjects and made the object of hours of close study and memorization.

Libyans will no longer profit from the insights of the Third Universal Theory–although they can now freely ask what happened to the first two. They will have to search for a solution to the problem of democracy without Gaddafi’s handy crib book. And they may find themselves struggling with the basics of human reproduction without the Great Leader’s wise advice:

Women are females and men are males. According to gynaecologists, women menstruate every month or so, while men, being male, do not menstruate or suffer during the monthly period. A woman, being a female, is naturally subject to monthly bleeding. When a woman does not menstruate, she is pregnant. If she is pregnant, she becomes, due to pregnancy, less active for about a year, which means that all her natural activities are seriously reduced until she delivers her baby…. The man, on the other hand, neither conceives nor breast-feeds. End of gynaecological statement!

Gaddafi’s The Green Book now takes its place on a shelf much over-filled with the works and memoirs of former dictators. No longer mandatory reading, these volumes languish, neglected by all but die-hard loyalists, masochists, and those inclined to morbid curiousity.

Admittedly, there is something about these books that makes watching paint dry seem thrilling. Vladimir Lenin set the tone a hundred years ago with such cliff-hangers as Materialism and Empirio-Criticism and The Tasks of the Proletariat in Our Revolution, and Stalin followed suit with Economic Problems of Socialism in the U. S. S. R. and other page-turners. Mao had the bright idea to package his best tid-bits in what became a global best-seller, Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung, otherwise known as the Little Red Book. Although perhaps it sold a little too well, for a couple years later he released a tract titled, Oppose Book Worship.

At least Lenin, Stalin, Hitler and Mao wrote their own material. Seeing the number of volumes that comprise the collected works of Kim Il Sung or Enver Hoxha, it’s hard not to speculate about secret forced-ghostwriting camps.

One odd tribute to the freedom of the Internet is the fact that one can get free access to most, if not all, of the works of late 20th century’s dictators. Gaddafi’s Green Book is available at, for example, and Lenin and Stalin’s works at the Marxists Internet Archive. Although Saparmurat Niyazov, otherwise known as Türkmenbashi, Leader of all the Turkmens, died in 2006, you can still savor the wisdom of his magnum opus, Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen at www/, at the official Turkmenistan government site, and at several Rukhnama (or Ruhnama) fan-sites (although is now defunct).

Rukhnama: Reflections on the Spiritual Values of the Turkmen is my favorite dictatorial opus. In addition to more Turkmen geneaology that you could possibly imagine, there are little parables that I am still pondering the meaning of, such as:

Once upon a time, a wife and a husband without any children were preparing to go to Mecca on pilgrimage. However, they could not decide what to do with the two hundred sikkes, which was their life-savings. Finally they divided the sikkes into two equal bundles. They left one of these bundles in the care of one of their neighbors. And they left the other bundle in the care of their Turkmen neighbor.

The Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in that corner and put the bundle in it.”

On returning from pilgrimage, the husband and wife went to take their money.

The first neighbor said them: “Oh neighbor, I used your money and increased your 100 sikkes to 150 sikkes. I have taken some of them for myself.”

Then they went to their Turkmen neighbor and asked for their sikkes. Their Turkmen neighbor said to them: “Open the box in the corner and take your money.”

Nothing happens by chance in life. A Turkmen saves the goods left in his care better than his own goods.

Niyazov appears to have taken this particular lesson very seriously. Estimates of his personal holdings in private Swiss and German bank accounts range as high as $3 billion. As one report during his time in power put it, “A figure such as Niyazov, who is not subject in practice to any basic checks and balances, can dispose of state funds through the banking systems of Germany and other European countries without anybody knowing what exactly it is that he does with the money.” A Turkmenbashi, it seems, saves his countrymen’s goods much, much better than his own goods.

North Korea is now headed into its third generation of Supreme Leaders, and we can only hope that Kim Jong-un will produce something to rival his father Kim Jong Il’s On the Art of the Cinema, where we learn that “The director is the commander of the creative group” and that “A director, however talented, cannot imagine a new and audacious cinematic presentation if he does not know the Party’s policies well.” Here we see the fatal weakness that undermines the capitalist boss-gang productions of Mr. Spielberg and Mr. Scorsese: utter ignorance of PArty policies in the absence of helpful “field guidance” from the Supreme Leader. Thanks to the spirit of Juche, we can all spend hours clicking through the E-library of the works of Kim Il Sung, Kim Jong Il, and Kim Jong Suk (wife to the first, mother to the second).

Not all dictators have had their works preserved online, however. There appears to be just one copy of the English translation of Haitian ruler Francois “Papa Doc” Duvalier’s Essential Works Volume 1: Elements of a Doctrine available for sale, and that at a price of $200. Ugandan strongman Idi Amin appears to have been a man of few written works, although a few copies of his pamphlet, The Middle East Crisis: His Excellency the President Al-Hajji General Idi Amin Dada’s contribution to the solution of the Middle East crisis during the third year of the Second Republic of Uganda can be found–the book surviving better than his solution to the crisis. It’s not been transcribed for the web, but there are still plenty of copies of Answer to History, the rambling memoirs of the ex-Shah of Iran, who was dying of cancer as he worked on the book–the very last thing he dictated, so to speak.
Cover of Enver Hoxha's 'With Stalin: Memoirs'
The pinnacle of dictatorial literature, though, has to be Albanian Communist leader Enver Hoxha’s With Stalin: Memoirs, written a few years before he died (and available online, thanks to Marxists International). In it, Hoxha recalls five trips he made to Moscow to meet with Stalin, between 1947 and 1951. As far as I know it’s the only book in which you get two dictators for the price of one.

In their first conversations, Stalin seemed most interested in how effectively Albania was serving as a buffer against encroachments from Greece, which was coming out of its civil war and headed towards western democracy. But most of the time they discussed such timeless topics as whether the trains ran on coal or oil and how much cotton per hectare the collective farms were producing. Stalin seems to have been especially fond of agriculture. As they parted company for the last time, he and Hoxha had this memorable exchange on the subject of seeds:

“What about eucalyptus? Have you sown the seeds I gave you?”

“We have sent them to the Myzeqe zone where there are more swamps,” I said, “and have given our specialists all your instructions.”

“Good,” said Comrade Stalin. “They must take care that they sprout and grow. It is a tree that grows very fast and has a great effect on moisture. The seed of maize I gave you can be increased rapidly and you can spread it all over Albania,” Comrade Stalin said and asked: “Have you special institutions for seed selection?”

“Yes,” I said “we have set up a sector for seeds attached to the Ministry of Agriculture and shall strengthen and extend it in the future.”

“You will do well!” Comrade Stalin said. “The people of that sector must have a thorough knowledge of what kinds of plants and seeds are most suitable for the various zones of the country and must see to getting them.”

Stalin clearly saw that people who had been farming their lands through many generations desparately needed party cadre officers to tell them what to plant. One had only to look at the remarkable results the Soviets had achieved through collectivization to know that.

Hoxha did see Stalin in person one time after that, in 1952 at the 19th Party Congress, where “for the last time I heard his voice, so warm and inspiring.” He closes by assuring his readers that “the Party of Labour of Albania would hold high the title of ‘shock brigade’ and that it would guard the teachings and instructions of Stalin as the apple of its eye.” One can see the teardrop forming as Hoxha finished this line.

So, as one more dictator debates that eternal choice: suicide or exile?, we can take comfort in the knowledge that no matter what may follow in his wake, there will, at least, be the consolation that a captive audience no longer has to read his nonsense and be expected to take it seriously.

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder

A few days ago, President Obama stopped in the town of Chatfield, Minnesota while on a bus tour of the Midwest. He visited a kids’ summer camp and posed for some photos with them.
President Obama joking with kids in Chatfield, Minnesota on August 15, 2011
By pure coincidence, I just finished reading a book about Chatfield and had started this post when the President’s stop brought this small town into the spotlight for an hour or so. Margaret Snyder’s 1948 book, The Chosen Valley describes how a quiet spot, a small valley where a creek joins the Root River, a tributary of the Missippi, was settled and grew for its first fifty or so years.

Most Americans have a general notion about how we got from the days of the American Revolution to today–about hunters and trappers exploring ever westward, followed by settlers who set up small farms, then small towns, the railroads, industrialization, wars big and small, and somehow, to now. How many, though, have any notion of the step-by-step changes that took us from wilderness to land claims to towns to sewer systems, electic lights, and school districts? The Chosen Valley does just that for Chatfield, population (2010) 2,779, and it’s a story that deserves to be far better known than either Chatfield or Snyder’s book are today.

Chatfield got its start in 1853, when one Thomas Twiford, who was essentially a would-be land developer, scouted out an area along the banks of the Root River, a small tributary of the Mississippi in the far southeast corner of Minnesota. He hurried back to the nearest town of any size and managed to get several other men interested enough to pack family and chattel into wagons and head to the place they decided to name Chatfield after a prominent judge of the new Minnesota Territory. As Snyder shows, through careful tracing of what at times were often intricate arrangements of ownership and financing–particularly during the rush of land speculation surrounding the mapping out of possible railroad routes–money, politics, and wheeling and dealing was far more often at the heart of development than anything we might nostalgically call the “pioneer spirit.”

Not that there weren’t plenty of hardships:

When January let loose its fury the hills were no shelter against the blizzards that blotted the world in a frenzy of snow, or the sly cold that crept into bed with the sleepers. John Luark’s wife died in the depths of that winter’s cold, despite the care of two doctors. Every man in town took his turn in the sad labor of chipping out a burial place in ground flint-hard with frost. They made her grave on the slope between the little house she lived in and the road that wound up the side of Winona Hill The townsfolk stood silent about the grave that January of 1855 as the first of their dead was buried.

The first few dozen settlers were followed by others the next spring. Within another year, the town had a flour mill, several general stores, regular church services if not a church building, a one-room school (private at first), and a land office. The last was set up by one Jason Easton, an ambitious young man from New York state who had arranged through a family friend in Washington, D. C., to win the job of opening a land office for the partitioning and sale of properties throughout the area of southeast Minnesota around Chatfield.

“The biggest thing going in Western business was undoubtedly land and the lending of money for the purchase of land,” Snyder observes. And here we begin to learn that, contrary to the myth of how the West was won, the transfer of land from its uncharted, undeveloped state to small farmers and businessmen–orchestrated through government land offices and countless political arrangements large and small–was the single most important factor in the transformation of the Midwest.

Jason Easton of Chatfield, Minnesota (circa 1876)Jason Easton embodied the zeal for deal-making that was an essential survival skill for an effective entrepreneur in the growing Midwest. He cajoled banks in Chicago, New York, and Philadelphia to get loans or attractive rates on his deposits. He fired off volleys of letters asking for patience when money was tight and delighted in managing to foist off a lot of dried peaches that “were wholly worthless but brought 5 cents per pound.”

For Chatfield and its surrounding counties, Easton was at the center of what was perhaps, for the Midwest, its most controversial and significant development: the routing and building of its first railroads. Chatfield had significant competition with nearby towns in the decision of where lines linking St. Paul and other growing cities and towns to Chicago. It failed to win a spot along the main line, but Easton was able to convince the Southern Minnesota Railway Company to run a spur to Chatfield from Winnebago, and to get himself appointed as president of the Southern Minnesota Railway Extension Company. He founded the town’s bank, bought up large plots of property around the town that he hired out to tenant farmers, and organized and invested in dozens of enterprises, more of which succeeded than not.

Easton apparently found it difficult to shift his attention from his latest batch of deals. Snyder recounts that, “there was one direful passage when Easton, deep in a cut-throat fight for the wheat markets of the state, refused to go to his mother, who had begged him to come in her serious illness. His letter to his brother, who had written for the mother, said: ‘. . . the demands of my business are just now so great that it is impossible for me to leave. My comfort must be in knowing that you are giving our mother every care.’ He enclosed ten dollars and urged his brother to ‘call on me freely if anything more is required.'”

In terms of wealth, Easton was an exception in Chatfield. One man did make a small fortune with a dry goods store, but he then moved his family to Minneapolis. Most of the people in and around the town were poor. Some, like the man who set up the town’s first mill, fared better. Everyone had no choice but to work hard. As a result, Snyder notes, there is no evidence of any art or literature, beyond amateur poems for ceremonial occasions, being created in the town.

Most of the first decade’s settlers were Americans–some first generation, some with American roots going back over 200 years. All but three states were represented in the 1860. Nearly a third of these came from New York, where poor families had a harder time getting enough land for a working farm or were moving west as Irish, Poles, and other immigrants began taking jobs for lower pay.

In 1860, one in four Chatfield residents was foreign born. Snyder traces the paths some of these followed to come to the town. Norwegians were spurred by the revolution of 1830. Germans by the revolution of 1848. One man snuck across the border from Bohemia into German one night to escape an abusive miller he was indentured to. The miller, James Marsar Cussons, “son and grandson of millers and with uncles and cousins beyond number in the trade,” came from England to have an opportunity to run his own mill. Ireland accounted for the greatest number by far–in large part due to the great potato famine of 1845-1852. As the figures from the census show, none of them came from southern Europe.

Foreign-born inhabitants of Chatfield, Minnesota (from 1860 Census)

Perhaps as much as a third or more of the new settlers moved on after a year or more. There were enough failed farms and stores to keep anyone from getting too complacent. The soil in the valley was excellent. Wheat was probably the most common crop, but almost everything one could plant was tried by someone at least once. Apples, plums, hops, sugar beets, potatoes, pumpkins, cabbages, and most other plants familiar from northern Europe did well. Most farms had some cows and hogs, but only the latter were raised for meat. Milk was too valuable to let a cow get killed for.

Dairy farming grew to be one of the town’s biggest businesses. In 1889, a few of the dairy farmers formed the Cooperative Creamery, which became a model for much of the country and one of the few employers to meet its payroll throughout the Great Depression.

By the late 1880s, Chatfield was no longer a frontier town but a well-established, prosperous, and stable. Which meant that opportunities were no longer so easy to find. “When the Dakota country opened up,” Snyder writes, “considerable numbers of the younger Chatfield men, some of them with wives and children, turned to that West to seek their fortunes.” Others moved on thanks to the educations their parents’ hard work and success had allowed them. When the local paper surveyed a group of young men who had left the town’s school a decade earlier, it found that over half worked “in business” rather than on the farm and most of these no longer lived in the town.
A postcard view of the main street of Chatfield, Minnesota in the late 1800s.
The town’s social values began to set like concrete, too. “As the population became relatively stable, and the excitement of change and conquest was lost, new ways were found for satisfying the individual’s sense of his own worth,” Snyder writes. It’s hard to believe that sentence wasn’t written with tongue in cheek, though, because the “new ways” she then describes are the Masonic Lodge, the Odd Fellows, and the Knights of Columbus.

The town’s infrastructure also matured. The common well dug in 1854 led to a simple system of distribution through hollowed-out logs and continued to grow until a full system with a pumping station, sewers, and drains was built. The groves of trees that greeted the first settlers were wiped out within a decade to build houses and make fence posts. The telegraph arrived within a few years. Electricity, which made it possible to gather in the evenings for more than a sing-along or a dance, arrived in the 1880s and the telephone not long after.

What I most enjoyed about The Chosen Valley was that Snyder describes almost all these developments by telling us who took the first steps–which were usually to a neighbor’s door to try to stir up interest and support. Three men decide the town needs a cemetery, and arrange to have a plot of land on the ridge behind the town set aside for it. The town’s first Catholic residents bring a priest over from nearby Winona to say the first mass in 1854. By 1874, they had their own church, paid for entirely from their own contributions. An amateur bucket brigade becomes the Fire Company and eventually the town fire department. Through all these stories, The Chosen Valley makes it crystal clear that the pioneer spirit was as much about interdependence as it was about independence.

If the book has any significant weakness, it is Snyder’s limitations as a writer. There is little romance in the story of the settlement and development of Chatfield, but that didn’t prevent her from inserting lyrical little passages that read like bad high school literary club prose. And as she brings the town’s story up to her present day, she seems to have run out of ideas completely. Instead of any stock-taking or long view of the ninety years she has covered, the book ends with a description of the start of World War Two and its effect on the town that is one of the worst pieces of writing I’ve come across in quite a while: “For the future, in its turn, would become the present, and no present can wholly escape the effects of its past. Where should the people begin the task of understanding the things-that-are, if always they set it aside for the headier wine of things-to-come?” Just typing that out was painful.

The Chosen Valley appears to have been the only book Margaret Snyder ever published. Aside from the few and brief passages of purple prose, it is well worth reading if you have any interest in American history with a small h. Through the small example of Chatfield, Minnesota, you can learn a great deal about a patch of land with trees and a little river running through it became a microcosm of America (at least up to the middle of the 20th century).

The Chosen Valley: the Story of a Pioneer Town, by Margaret Snyder
New York City: W. W. Norton and Company, Inc., 1948

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien

Now I know where Samuel Beckett really got his inspiration.

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Whale and the Grasshopper'Seumas O’Brien’s The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is one of the most absurd books written before the rise of surrealism, full of tales tall as Paul Bunyan that serve as the backdrop for a series of philosophical debates that wrap nihilism in a cloak of old country weave.

At heart, it’s nothing more than a collection of Pat and Mike stories–except in this case, it’s Padna and Micus. “I want to tell you about the morning I walked along the beach at Ballysantamalo,” Padna says to Micus at the start of the title story.

So I ses to meself, Padna Dan, ses I, what kind of a fool of a man are you? Why don t you take a swim for yourself? So I did take a swim, and I swam to the rocks where the seals go to get their photographs taken, and while I was having a rest for myself I noticed a grasshopper sitting a short distance away and ‘pon my word, but he was the most sorrowful-looking grasshopper I ever saw before or since. Then all of a sudden a monster whale comes up from the sea and lies down beside him and ses: ‘Well, ses he, is that you? Who’d ever think of finding you here? Why there’s nothing strange under the sun but the ways of woman.”

“Tis me that’s here, then,” ses the grasshopper. “My grandmother died last night and she wasn’t insured either.”

“The practice of negligence is the curse of mankind and the root of sorrow.” ses the whale. “I suppose the poor old soul had her fill of days, and sure we all must die, and tis cheaper to be dead than alive at any time. A man never knows that he’s dead when he is dead, and he never knows he’s alive until he’s married.”

That’s a pretty good taste of the whole book. Each tale is nothing less than fantastic. The Czar of Russia comes to visit the Mayor of Cahermore. Johnny Moonlight meets up with the Devil and Oliver Cromwell on a lonely country road. The King of Montobewlo finally gives up cannabalism after an encounter with his first Irishman. Matty the Goat seeks the advice of the King of Spain on whether it would be better to commit suicide in New York or Boston. Shauno the Rover, feeling underappreciated by the world, dresses up as Henry the Eighth and cons a Royal Navy captain to take him on a royal cruise to Sperrispazuka, where he pays a visit on the Shah. (Shauno, by the way, is “a gentleman withal,” Padna assures Micus: “Never known to use his rare vocabulary in the presence of ladies, but would wait until their backs were turned, like a well-trained married man, and then curse and damn them one and all to perdition.”)

But the actual stories themselves, even at their most ridiculous, are just excuses for Padna and Micus to play games of platitudinous one-upmanship. In the first few pages of the book, it seems as if O’Brien is doing nothing more than using some wild tales as an odd way of celebrating naive folk philosophy. “Decency when you’re poor is extravagance, and bad example when you’re rich,” Micus counsels Padna at the start of “The Whale and the Grasshopper.”

OK. I’d accept that as a wee bit o’ wisdom from the Oud Sod. But take a close look at what follows:

“And why?” said Padna.

“Well,” said Micus, “because the poor imitate the rich and the rich give to the poor and when the poor give to each other they have nothing of their own.”

“That’s communism you’re talking,” said Padna, “and that always comes before education and enlightenment. Sure, if the poor weren’t decent they’d be rich, and if the rich were decent they’d be poor, and if every one had a conscience there’d be less millionaires.”

“But suppose a bird had a broken wing and couldn’t fly to where the pickings were?” said Micus.

“Well, then bring the pickings to him. That would be charity.”

“”But charity is decency,” Micus replies. At which point it becomes clear that Padna and Micus are less country sages than precursors of Vladimir and Estragon. Indeed, one could argue they have even less of an idea what’s going on than Beckett’s pair waiting for Godot.

I suspect that the whole book is nothing more than an attempt to pop the bubble of fuzzy nostalgia surrounding the softer-headed elements of the Irish Renaissance. In O’Brien’s view, Crazy Jane isn’t insightful–just crazy. Indeed, H. L. Mencken wrote in one review that the book, “saved the Irish Renaissance from its prevailing melancholy.”

Seamus O’Brien was born in Cork and trained as a sculptor and taught at the Dublin Metropolitan School of Art. He took up writing in his mid-twenties. His play, “Duty” (available with four other O’Brien comedies on Project Gutenberg) was first performed at the Abbey Theatre in 1913, and has been called the best Irish comedy every written. But soon after that he moved to America, where he remained for decades. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables was published in 1916, after which he appears to have written nothing but an occasional article or short story. The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables is available in print from a number of direct-to-print republishers, but don’t pay their exorbitant prices: get it free and use your eReader or print out a copy. After all, as O’Brien writes, “Flies never frequent empty jam-pots, but money always brings friends.”

Whatever that means.

The Whale and the Grasshopper and Other Fables, by Seumas O’Brien
Boston: Little, Brown, and Company, 1916.

Harper Perennial to release lost Jetta Carleton novel, Clair de Lune, in March 2012

Cover of forthcoming release of 'Clair de Lune'Robert Nedelkoff passed along Harper’s list of new publications for Winter 2012, which includes a listing for Clair de Lune, a hitherto unpublished novel that came to light after the Harper Perennial release of her first novel, The Moonflower Vine.

I wrote about The Moonflower Vine in late 2006 after finding a piece about it in Jane Smiley’s 13 Ways of Looking at the Novel. That post garnered more of a response than any other on this site. Since then, several dozen people have written to express how much they loved this book, many saying that they’re read it ten times or more.

Carleton wrote Clair de Lune between 1995 and 1997, after the death of her beloved husband, Jere Lyon. She wrote the novel, which had a working title of The Back Alleys of Spring, on a friend’s computer. Neither the writing nor the use of the PC (she’d never touched one before) was any mean feat for someone in her early eighties at the time. Before she had the chance to start looking for a publisher, however, she suffered a stroke that took her ability to speak. She died in 1999.

The story in Clair de Lune derives from Carleton’s own experiences as a young teacher in Joplin–in the same area of southwest Missouri that The Moonflower Vine is set in. Harper’s Winter catalog provides a fragmentary synopsis of the plot:

The time: 1941, at the cusp of America’s entry into WWII. The place: southwest Missouri, on the edge of the Ozark Mountains. A young, single woman named Ailen Liles has taken a job as a junior college teacher in a small town, though she dreams of living in New York City, of dancing at recitals, of absorbing the bohemian delights of the Village. Then, in her seminar, she encounters two young men: George, a lanky, carefree spirit, and Toby, a dark-haired, searching …

I’m sure it will prove less Danielle Steel-y than that last sentence suggests.

Harper’s announcement says it’s planning on a release of 30,000 copies in trade paperback, along with release in several eBook formats. Let’s hope it’s as good as The Moonflower Vine fans would wish for.

Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store

Every summer for the last few years, our family has spent a good chunk of the summer in Missoula, Montana. Each time, I take a day and travel about thirty miles west on I-90 to the little one-street town of Alberton (pop. 418) to visit the Montana Valley Book Store. Housed in an old frame building with a store front straight out of the 1900s, the store holds over 100,000 books–mostly hardbacks upstairs, with paperbacks only in the basement. It’s also–amazingly–open 365 days a year.

There is a long set of trays with relatively recent books that leads from the door to the cash register, but in general the inventory dates from the 1920s to the 1960s. Its stacks run floor to ceiling and are always worth at least a few hours of careful browsing. My favorite section is the basement, which is a treasure trove of old paperback fiction. I find it’s harder and harder to find bookstores that have more than a handful of paperbacks from earlier than the mid-1980s, so it’s a real pleasure to pick through the basement, where there’s only a handful of paperbacks newer than that.

This time, I made a point of pulling many of the titles I didn’t recognize and comparing the publication dates of the original and the paperback edition. Back in the heyday of pocket-sized paperbacks, when Pocket Books, Dell, Avon, Signet, Bantam, and other publishers were pumping out a relentless flow of releases, grabbing a dusty title from the past and slapping a gaudy cover on it was a quick and cheap way to pad out a catalog. Perhaps no other company was as fond of this practice as Popular Library, which didn’t have the advantage of being tied to a major publisher with an active line of new hardcover titles to draw upon. And sure enough, my excavations dug up a number of interesting Popular Library artifacts.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Johnny Bogan'The earliest title, Johnny Bogan by Leonora Baccante, published by Popular Library in 1959 with a typically suggestive cover, dates from 1931. It’s the story of two young people struggling between their desires and social mores (this was a time when pre-marital sex was still a largely taboo subject) and ends with a rape and then a murder. When first published, by Vanguard, the book received pretty positive reviews. One reviewer called it, “the finest novel I have read this year,” and the New Republic’s reviewer wrote, “Her technical method is vigorous and sure, her projection of character, especially that of Johnny, is admirable in its honesty and veraciousness [veracity?], and there is no trafficking with sentiment in a theme in which opportunities for it are endless: she accomplishes, neatly and precisely, what she sets out to do.” Johnny Bogan appears to have been the only book she ever published, although there are notices that Vanguard was going to release a second novel, Women Must Love in 1932.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Dusk at the Grove'The next, going in chronological order, is Samuel Roger’s Dusk at the Grove, which won the Atlantic Monthly’s $10,000 Prize in 1934 for best English-language novel of year–the first American novel to do so. At the time, the award was the biggest in the publishing business, but the list of prize winners could easily be added as another of this site’s Sources (does anyone remember the 1936 winner, I am the Fox by Winifred Van Etten? Or 1940’s winner, The Family by Nina Fedorova (also reissued by Popular Library in the 1960s)?). Opinion among contemporary reviewers, however, was mostly unanimous that Roger’s book well deserved its prize. “There should be little complaint, however, with the judges who picked Dusk at The Grove for this year’s $10,000 Atlantic Prize Contest. The still waters of this quiet novel run deep. Author Rogers deals sparingly with what his people do, more with what they say, most with what they think,” wrote Time magazine’s reviewer. The New Frontier rated it “… too good a book to be known as “‘a prize novel.'”

Dusk at the Grove follows the lives of the Warings, a family of no great means, through a series of scenes set at “The Grove,” their summer house in Rhode Island, between the years 1909 and 1931. Rogers relies heavily but apparently effectively on use of the stream of consciousness technique–indeed, one reviewer wrote that he had taken the technique as far as anyone could go with it. The story ends with the sale of “The Grove” to avert a bankruptcy, but Rogers seems to have taken an open attitude toward such changes: “I cannot help having still faith in life,” thinks Linda, the Waring’s daughter, even as she reflects on how much she regretted leaving “The Grove” as the end of each summer neared. Dusk was Roger’s third novel. He went on to publish five more, of which Lucifer in Pine Lake (1937), a study of an egotistical college professor (Rogers taught French at the University of Wisconsin for many years) was the best received.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'The Anointed'Next in line is Clyde Brion Davis’ The Annointed, from 1937. I wrote about Davis’s second book, The Great American Novel, in one of the earliest posts on this site. Davis was a pretty prolific novelist through the 1930s and 1940s, but his work has utterly dropped from site. This is a real shame, as he’s one of the most likeable writers you’ll ever come across. A veteran newspaper reporter, he’d seen enough by the time he took up fiction to have a very clear-eyed view of human nature, but he was just too generous and optimistic a soul to let his cynicism cut too deep. Reviewing The Annointed for the New York Times, Robert van Gelder called it one of the two best first novels he’d ever read (the other was Humphrey Cobb’s Paths of Glory, which I see finally made it in the ranks of the Penguin Modern Classics last year). And the New Republic‘s reviewer wrote, “There is a Mother Goose-like combination of naivete and shrewdness to the book, a simplicity of style, an acuteness of characterization and observation”–a good summation of Davis’ approach in general. The Annointed was often compared to one of the 1930’s biggest best-sellers, Hervey Allen’s Anthony Adverse. While both books told the story of young men who got into a series of adventures at sea and on foreign shores, Davis managed to fit his into about one-sixth the number of pages.

Cover of Popular Library edition of 'Ceremony of Innocence'Last on the list is Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, which was first published in South Africa as Expiring Frog (not a title that even the folks at Popular Library would have taken on) in 1946. The book was selected for the Afrikaanse Pers prize (along with Daphne Rooke’s first novel, A Grove of Fever Trees). Webster was not South African, however: born in Scotland, she was living there for health reasons. To no avail, sadly–she died just two weeks after receiving the award and several months before the book actually found a publisher.

Popular Library’s cover for Ceremony of Innocence does show a nun–but it’s easily the most misleading of this batch. Ceremony, which uses the figure of a young novice, Sylvie, living in a convent outside Geldersburg (read Johannesburg), rather as Voltaire does Candide–to highlight the vanities and hypocrises of contemporary religion and society. Sylvie is found to having some kind of healing power, but this disturbs the quiet order of the Catholic church and she is smuggled out of sight while the church leaders figure out the right “spin” for her story. Unfortunately for them, she falls for one of the men hiding her and ends up bearing his child. As with Candide, Sylvie is an instrument rather than a character, and Webster uses her to cut deeply into her targets. “Several of her scenes are expert in her caustic malice,” Orville Prescott in the New York Times. Writing in 1948 for , novelist Alan Paton wrote, “I thought it was an extraordinary book. I have just read it again, and am still of the same opinion. It is not only written with a fine economy of words, but it is written with a fine economy of narrative as well; it moves on, and I do not find myself being impatient for any chapter to end.” Prescott differed, rating the book “diverting rather than moving. The rapturous acclaim which it has already received in this country seems wildly extravagant.” Nonetheless, it’s probably well worth discovering and assessing now from the distance of sixty-five years.

These Popular Library titles are just a sample of the armload I took away from this summer’s visit to Alberton. I expect at least a few of the rest to show up here in the course of the months between now and next year’s visit.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger

Cover of first U. S. edition of 'The Jester's Reign' by Boyne GraingerI was immediately intrigued when I came across the dust jacket of The Jester’s Reign in the Digital Gallery of the New York Public Library several years ago. The Jester’s Reign, according to the dust jacket blurb, is “A series of mysterious cosmic phenomena broke upon a startled world, defying the laws of nature and baffling the scientists” that takes place in the course of one month somewhere in the 1930s. After months of being put off by the fact that the handful of copies for sale all commanded prices of $40 and up, I finally broke down and bought one in March.

I wish I could say it was worth the wait and expense.

It starts with promise. An odd, loud, but unmistakable noise like laughter sounds for just a moment throughout the entire world. Most people are startled. Those of good humor feel the better for it. Those with shriveled up hearts feel uneasy and fearful. And a small collection of people in Manhattan sharing a small open space not much larger than an airshaft begin to find their lives coming together in unexpected ways.

At the center of this group is Mister Ergo. A quiet older man, Mister Ergo seems to have some connection with the “phenomenon,” as the newspapers quickly dub it. Or phenomena, to be more accurate, as the laughter is soon followed by a series of fantastical and gently whimsical occurences. In one of the earliest, everyone in the world stops for a moment to greet each other:

Diplomats said “How do you do?” to messenger boys, bank presidents said it to the charwomen. Functionaries said it to elevator boys. Spinsters said it to bachelors, stenographers to street sweepers, sweepers to ladies in limousines. An opera singer said it to a coal heaver, magnates said it to beggars, policemen to cab drivers, a queen said it to a lunatic, a duchess to a ragpicker. Theives said it to ministers, chorus girls to managers, general to privates, ships’ captains to stokers … and so on all through the walks of life where life was walking at that moment occurred this involuntary interchange of mutual recognition and solicitude.

Certainly the like had never been known on this planet before.

It was true that there were strange complications as a result of the phenomenon. Some were chagrined afterwards, and even mortified. For instance, two lady club members, deadly enemies, who chanced to stand side by side at a bargain counter went home and had nervous prostration because they had spoken to each other. A farmer and his wife in Vermont, who had shared farm, and farmhouse, and even bed, for forty years but had not spoken to each other since 1907, immediately applied for a divorce, unable to survive the shame of the breaking of their resolution.

Soon, the phenomena bring together a cast of characters a bit like a collision between “Major Barbara” and “Golden Boy.” There is a wealthy playgirl; an even wealthier armaments magnate; a boxer with the soul of a poet; his poor but gorgeous neighbor with an operatic voice; her snivelling gonif of a brother; a sweet spinster; and roughly a dozen others. Not one of them acquires the slightest depth of characterization in the course of the book’s 300-plus pages.

If a novel’s characters are flat and undeveloped, then its narrative could make up for that. And at first, it seems there might be some direction, some shape, some meaning to the various phenomena. Some are a bit dewy-eyed, like the rain of flowers that drop from the skies and sprout from the mouths of every cannon and rifle. Others are downright worth wishing for in real life:

… every frenzied activity was suspended, every adult straining muscle and thought relaxed, surrendered, enjoyed the mysterious hiatus in which the very idea of Hurry melted out of the human brain. In that marvelous fragment of time mankind had an experience never known before. It saw, down a vista like a deep green tunnel of woodland boughs, the future stretching thousands and millions of years away, with time for everything to be done without haste or concern.

By the time the book is nearly 95% done, however, nothing much more has happened than a month’s worth of phenomena and a lot of scurrying around by the various characters. Mister Ergo tries to explain what it all means in the climactic scene : “The New Hope will come. A New Hope always has come, created out of the need that is the core of Desolation. What will it be? Who can say … and how does it matter?” There is more of this, but it’s all essentially New Age-y babble.

Personally, I have always found that when a novel ends with a speech in which one character that tries to explain what it all means, what it really means is that the novelist ran out of ideas and is trying to substitute argument for imagination. It’s like cutting directly from Shakespeare to a Presidential debate. Whatever it is, it ain’t art. Is what Mister Ergo has to say really going to make a difference to any of other characters–or the reader?

If this technique ever worked–and if it didn’t for Tolstoy in War and Peace, why would it for a lesser writer?–then criticism would be indistinguishable from art. But it isn’t, and The Jester’s Reign doesn’t succeed where War and Peace failed. You’d be better of stopping 10-15 pages short and making up your own ending.

From what little I could piece together about her, Grainger was born Bonita Ginger, either in Colorado or England, in the late 1800s. She moved to New York around the time of World War One and was one of the colony of writers and artists like John Reed and e. e. cummings who settled in Patchin Place at the end of the war. She wrote a novel called, The Hussy, which was published by Boni and Liveright in 1924. It appears to have been a satire on the double standards of romantic/sexual behavior that existed between men and women at the time. Aside from The Jester’s Reign, she only published a short bundle of poems (Five poems) and a sweet memoir of Greenwich Village life in the 1920s (We Lived in Patchin Place). She apparently ran an informal speakeasy called “Bonnie’s Office” to make ends meet during the Prohibition, and befriended artists and writers old (brothers Theodore and Llewellyn Powys) and young (Esther McCoy) during her time in Patchin Place. She died sometime around 1962.

The Jester’s Reign, by Boyne Grainger
New York: Carrick and Evans, 1938

Life of Campestris ulm, the Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis

Title Page of 'Life of Campestris Ulm'I’ve read the biography of a dog, of a cow, of an elephant, of a lion, and of a seagull (yeah, that one). But this is my first biography of a tree. Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is a quirky tribute written by Joseph Henry Curtis, a Boston native, around the time of the 130th anniversary of the oldest living tree on Boston Common.

Campestris Ulm, the oldest tree on Boston Common, around 1910Campestris ulm is the scientific name for the English elm. Although a different elm–the Old Great Elm, an American elm sometimes known as the Liberty Tree–was better known until it fell in an enormous galestorm that hit Boston in 1876, this elm was one of a number planted at the behest of John Hancock, prominent signer of the Declaration of Independence (literally) and first governor of the Commonwealth of Massachussetts, around the time he took office in 1780 and outlasted it.

At the time, cows grazed on Boston Common. The Common itself survived only because it served practical concerns, although Hancock–very much a lover of fine clothes, fine living, and beautiful public spaces–was beginning to change things. Still, Massachussetts at the time was a state strongly under the Puritan influence. Curtis recalls Sundays in the early years after the tree’s planting:

From midnight Saturday to sunset Sunday was weekly a day of rest for Campestris. He hardly dared to stir a leaf; even the cows abstained in large measure from chewing their cuds and the Common was deserted. One Sunday, however, he was astonished and shocked to observe the Governor taking a turn in the mall on his way home from church. He was glad to learn the next day that the Governor was fined, and, much as he respected his sponsor, felt that it served him right.

As Curtis tells us, Hancock fell afoul of a relatively recent statute, that ruled that “travelling or other secular employments, unless for some purpose of necessity or humanity, was prohibited on the Lord’s day; and wardens, tithingmen, and other functionaries, were clothed with unusual powers to enforce its observance.”

As time passed, certain of the old time prohibitions lapsed and the beauty and benefits of the Common came to be increasingly accepted and protected–particularly after the return of Oliver Wendell Holmes and others from Paris, where, as David McCullough describes it in his new book, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, they marvelled at the Garden of the Tuileries and other public spaces. Yet not so fast that a few victims of pragmatism remained. In 1820, for example, a local bit of folklore was obliterated on the simple policy that a boulder takes up valuable productive soil:

One morning in 1820, in his fortieth year, Campestris observed a cluster of workmen around his old friend, the Wishing-Stone, one holding a drill, while another was swinging a heavy sledge-hammer. After a time this ceased, and another man seemed to be busy ramming and tamping something into a hole. Shortly after there was a great scampering of cows driven wildly at a distance and the cluster of men dispersed in various directions along the several paths, waving their hands as a warning. One man left behind lingered a short time, and then ran rapidly away. There was a flash, an explosion, the air was filled with smoke, and when it cleared, to the astonishment and grief of Campestris, his beloved boulder, the friend of his youth, was observed blown to fragments.

In the language of trees, Campestris exclaimed, as he shook his limbs, “What have you done, you stupid louts, you churls and sons of churls? Know ye not, that it was no common stone; that, hallowed as it was by the vows of countless swains and maids, it possessed a sentimental value which, translated into dollars and cents, the only measure of value your vulgar, commonplace lives can appreciate, would amount to a sum you could never replace by your labor, if your lives were prolonged beyond the age of Methuselah? Would that you were buried in the debris of your own blast. “Alas, alas!” he soliloquized, “a large part of the pleasure of my life has departed,” and sadly he watched the stupid, indifferent men load the fragments on a drag and carry them away.

In after years Campestris could never allude to the destruction of his old friend without manifesting his grief and sorrow.

The tree survived the great storm that felled the Liberty Tree, as well as some man-made cataclysms such as the construction of the MTA and of public restrooms in gloriously hideous late Victorian style within its eyeshot. Curtis writes of regular visits to converse with the elm and reports on some of its recent complaints. “He lately had been greatly disturbed by the borings for the new Cambridge Tunnel,” Curtis tells us.

I don’t know if this tree is still standing on the Common. Other than Curtis, no one seems to have taken particular notice of it within the last century. And though Life of Campestris Ulm: Oldest Inhabitant of Boston Common is certainly no more than a pleasant bit of amusement, Curtis deserves some credit for having managed to organize an interesting social and historical panorama around the figure of a simple sturdy tree providing some shade to those walking along one of the paths through the Common.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common is available free online through the Internet Archive in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, ASCII, and other formats.

Life of Campestris ulm, the oldest inhabitant of Boston Common, by Joseph Henry Curtis
Boston: W. B Clarke, 1910

The Search for Good Sense, by F. L. Lucas

Cover of first U.K. edition of 'The Search for Good Sense'“It seems to me,” F. L. Lucas writes in the introduction to The Search for Good Sense, “mere common sense never to undertake a piece of work, or read a book, without asking, ‘Is it worth the amount of life it will cost?’ … ‘Will it make life more vivid, more intelligent, more complete, more real?'”

To which, in this case, I can answer, most heartily, Yes!

On the rare occasions when the name of F(rank) L(aurence) Lucas comes up these days, it’s in connection with his masterpiece, Style, which is one of the best things ever written about writing prose and, sadly, scarcer than hens’ teeth. Lucas wrote dozens of books–novels, poetry, drama, essays, history, political pieces, great swaths of historical literary criticism, and numerous compilations of the works of writers major and minor. Of the last, T. S. Eliot once wrote that Lucas was “the perfect annotator.” Pretty much none of it is in print today.

The Search for Good Sense deals with four masters of eighteenth-century English literature–Samuel Johnson, Lord Chesterfield, James Boswell, and Oliver Goldsmith. Its companion volume, The Art of Living, covers four more: Hume, Burke, Franklin, and Horace Walpole. “It would have been easier,” Lucas acknowledges, “to combine both in a single volume; but in this age of growing bustle and mounting prices there is, more often than ever, truth in the adage of Callimachus, librarian of Alexandria–‘a big book is a big evil.'” And this is a perfect example of the pleasures that come with taking an excursion into some past lives with such a profoundly well-read and yet profoundly pragmatic guide. Hardly a page goes by without a delicious quote that begs to be repeated.

Each of Lucas’ biographical essays is between 60 and 120 pages long. He “attempts to omit nothing that is really vital, and to include nothing that is not….” Yet he manages to include more than a few detours that no one would choose to delete for the sake of a page or two. Though Lucas is a passionate defender of the essential importance of the main principle of the Age of Reason–namely, that civilization depends upon our ability to master our emotions through the application of reason–he acknowledges that, “Part of the composure of the educated in the eighteenth century came, I suspect, from their power still to digest what was known….”

In fact, as he later shows in his essay on Goldsmith, even in the eighteenth century, working writers sometimes had to venture well beyond what was known–at least to them. “If he can distinguish a cow from a horse, that, I believe, may be the extent of his knowledge of natural history,” Dr. Johnson once said of Goldsmith. That didn’t prevent Goldsmith from writing an entire book–and a big one–on the subject, one which included gems such as the account of the tragic squirrel flotillas excerpted here recently.

Dr. Johnson is, of course, the grandest figure of the four men covered in The Search for Good Sense. “We treasure his memory partly because he was often wise and good, but partly–let us own it–because he could also resemble an intoxicated hippopotamus.” Although Lucas gives credit to the merits of Johnson’s own works, he is clear-eyed enough to admit that much of it embodies the worst of eighteenth-century English prose: verbose, oratorical, and inclined never to take the shortest path between two points. Yet “few men seem to me to have struggled more against the constant human temptation to say and believe, or pretend to believe, what is comfortable, conventional, lazy, or pleasant.” For Lucas, who had survived gassing and shelling on the Western Front, witnessed the devastation caused by Fascism and Communism, and railed against the evils of groupthink long before Orwell gave it a name, this was no small accomplishment.

In contrast to Johnson and his war with conventions Lucas then offers the example Lord Chesterfield, who held good manners above all other values. “I am very sure,” chesterfield wrote in one of his once-highly-regarded instructional letters to his son, “that any man of common understanding may, by proper culture, care, attention, and labour make himself whatever he pleases.” To which Lucas responds, “In what world, one wonders, do people live who can imagine such nonsense?” Having watched his own children grow up, Lucas rates “inborn nature definitely more important than upbringing.” As a father of twins, I put myself squarely on his side: most of what they are or ever will be comes with them out of the womb. “All the pages ever penned in defence of Chesterfield’s paternal preachments do not seem to me worth four words of honest old Augustine Birrell–‘Ugh, what a father!'”

Lucas is not one to kick a man when he’s down, though:

After all, it is fair to remember that we have one unfair advantage over him–he is dead, and we live later. Let us not abuse it. If we find much to critize in him, he would have found much to disdain in us–in our follies and vulgarities, in our press and our advertisements, in our literature, our art, and our society.

From stuffy old Lord Chesterfield, Lucas then launches into messy, earthy, pushy, self-obsessed James Boswell: “The central dissension over James Boswell turns on the question–ass or genius?” Lucas had the benefit of writing after the discovery and publication of Boswell’s journals. The journals helped set Boswell’s Life of Johnson into their proper context–that of an extract from Boswell’s magnum opus: “part of the far vaster, journalized autobiography of Boswell himself. The Life of Johnson is really only an outwork of a far huger Life of Boswell. Still, he rates Boswell’s obsession with recording events in his journal “an attitude to me as fantastic as the ancient Egyptian feeling that what happened to one’s body living mattered less than having it properly pickled for eternity.”

All the same, despite Boswell’s constant indulgences of his appetites, Lucas most definitely positions himself on the side of those who consider Boswell a genius:

In this aspect Boswell was a kind of grotesque anthropologist–a species of scientist. But he was also an artist. Biography, like history, remains art as well as science. Its paramount duty is truth. But though it should tell nothing but the truth, it cannot possibly tell the whole truth. It must select, or die of its own unwieldly corpulence. The thoughts of a single day might burst a whole volume of autobiography; sufficient research might swell the life of a single man to the size of an encyclopedia in thirty volumes. But it would leave the man’s personality, which is the central theme of biography as of portrait-painting, swamped and blurred. To read it would be as tedious and impractical as a walking tour of Siberia.

Boswell’s genius, in Lucas’ estimation, was in two crucial choices: to choose Johnson, of all the contemporaries he could have taken up with; and to have “the further good sense to select Johnson’s talk as the main feature of that subject.” If he had erred in either decision, the Life would have been no better remembered today than any dozen other biographies published the same year.

Lucas rounds out his quartet with a sketch of the life and works of Oliver Goldsmith. The Vicar of Wakefield is no longer the staple work of 18th century literature it was in my father’s and grandfather’s day (my sons and probably most of their contemporaries read Candide instead), but for Lucas, he earns his place through the quality of his character and humanity as much as through the quality of his pen: “Goldsmith remains an example of what goodness, good sense, grace, gaiety, and simplicity can do, even in a harsh world preoccupied with many meaner things.”

I dog-eared so many pages while reading The Search for Good Sense that even if I quoted from just one in four, this post would have to run on for another thousand-plus words. But out of respect for Lucas, who once wrote that “Brevity is first of all a form of courtesy,” I must confine myself to just one final aphorism from the many gems that lie waiting in this book:

In lovers’ quarrels, only the lovers know all the facts, but cannot judge them dispassionately; while those who might judge them dispassionately, cannot possibly know all the facts.

The Search for Good Sense, by F. L. Lucas
London: Cassell and Company, 1958

Operators and Things: Barbara O’Brien’s classic memoir of schizophrenia–now in print AND online

Cover of first US edition of 'Operators and Things'The always-alert Robert Nedelkoff just tipped me off on the release of one of the most memorable and–until now–rarest neglected books discussed on this site: Barbara O’Brien’s 1958 memoir of schizophrenia, Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic. First published by an obscure press, Arlington Books, then reissued as an Avon paperback with a cover that probably led more than stores and buyers to consider it a pulp SF novel, O’Brien’s book remains unique in its depiction of schizophrenia as experienced from the inside out.

In the book, O’Brien describes waking up one morning to find herself living in a world populated by “Operators,” who are the ultimate embodiment of the paranoic’s concept of the people in control, the ones working according to a secret plan, the ones pulling the strings of power and influence–and by “Things,” the puppets manipulated and exploited by the Operators. She, of course, is a Thing, and she spends the next six months travelling around the country by Greyhound bus, following (but also trying to resist) the instructions of the Operators.

Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic was reissued back in the mid-1970s as a mass-market paperback in both the US and the UK, but it’s been out of print since then, commanding prices ranging between $25 and $250 in the last decade. Now, however, it’s available in trade paperback from Silver Birch Press with an introduction by Michael Macoby, who’s better known for his books on leadership in the business world, a preface by scriptwriter Melanie Villines, and an afterwood by Colleen Delegan. Villines and Delegan have written an unproduced screenplay based on the boook.

However, I also found that, over a year ago, someone published Operators and Things: The Inner Life of a Schizophrenic as an eBook on You can read it online or download a copy in PDF, EPUB, Kindle, and other formats–with Macoby’s introduction but sans Villines’ and Delegan’s pieces.

Either way, I recommend discovering this remarkable book–which moved 14 different people to post 5-star reviews on Amazon despite its being out of print and virtually unheard-of in the last decade.


After posting this, I received an email from Melanie Villines with some additional information about the new release:

The Silver Birch Press edition of Operators and Things includes a NEW (!) interview with Michael Maccoby (conducted in Sept. 2010) that offers some fascinating insights into the book. Our edition also includes beautiful period photos by iconic photographers Esther Bubley, Russell Lee, and John Vachon. My foreword also offers an overview of how the book has been received by the public and press since its publication and includes info about my personal interactions with some of the original players (agent, publishers, and others connected with the book). Thanks for your kind consideration and thoughtful attention.

Bubley, Lee, and Vachon were all members of Roy Stryker’s remarkable team of Farm Security Administration photographers, by the way, which created one of the greatest photographic records of American life during the 1930s and 1940s.

Second Reading, by Jonathan Yardley

Cover of 'Second Reading' by Jonathan YardleyNext week, Europa Editions, a New York-based publishing house with ties to the Italian publishing firm Edizioni E/O, releases Second Reading, which collects 60 pieces from the series of the same name, which appeared in the Washington Post between March 2003 and January 2010. Frustrated at having his column in the Post’s renown “Book World” section taken away without explanation after twenty years, Yardley was casting about for new ventures when the idea of a series based on his reconsiderations of selected books from a lifetime of reading came to him. As he soon discovered, he was not alone in appreciating the chance to step away from the weekly onslaught of press releases and review copies:

It didn’t take long for me to realize how much fun it was to reach back into my past reading–as you’ll see, the word “fun” appears frequently in these pieces–or to discover how much pleasure it gave many of the Post’s readers to be offered discussions of (mostly) worthy older books. The fixation of journalists on the new and the trendy is a forgivable occupational hazard, but it neglects the interests of readers who want something more substantial than the latest Flavor of the Day. My own tastes certainly are not everybody’s tastes, but the steady, heavy volume of incoming e-mail convinced me that I had stumbled onto something that readers wanted.

While I’ve never been deluged with a “steady, heavy volume of incoming e-mail,” I can certainly second the view that wandering away from best-seller lists–and even from the stock of a good bookstore’s stock of in-print titles–can be great fun. It’s certainly part of what had kept me going for a little over five years now.

The full list of the 94 books that Yardley covered over the course of seven years can be found on this site at the link to “Jonathan Yardley’s Second Readings” in the list of Sources at the left of this page.

It should also be noted that Europa Editions has already done its share in rescuing neglected books, having brought two worthy novels–Alfred Hayes’ The Girl on the Via Flaminia and Patrick Hamilton’s Hangover Square back to print in handsome paperback editions.

The Tragic Fate of Squirrel Flotillas, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature

I’m reading E. L. Lucas’ The Search for Good Sense. In his chapter on Oliver Goldsmith, Lucas reprints the following particularly fantastic yet wonderful passage from A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, one of the many works written by Goldsmith in the interest of keeping a roof over his head.

In Lapland, and the extensive forests to the north, the squirrels are observed to change their habitation, and to remove in vast numbers from one country to another. In these migrations they are generally seen by thousands, travelling directly forward; while neither rocks, forests, nor even the broadest waters, can stop their progress. What I am going to relate appears so extraordinary, that were it not attested by numbers of the most credible historians, among whom are Klein and Linnaeus, it might be rejected with that scorn with which we treat imposture or credulity; however, nothing can be more true than that when these animals, in their progress, meet with broad rivers, or extensive lakes, which abound in Lapland, they take a very extraordinary method of crossing them. Upon approaching the banks, and perceiving the breadth of the water, they return, as if by common consent, into the neighbouring forest, each in quest of a piece of bark, which answers all the purposes of boats for wafting them over. When the whole company are fitted in this manner, they boldly commit their little fleet to the waves; every squirrel sitting on its own piece of bark, and fanning the air with its tail, to drive the vessel to its desired port. In this orderly manner they set forward, and often cross lakes several miles broad. But it too often happens that the poor mariners are not aware of the dangers of their navigation; for although at the edge of the water it is generally calm, in the midst it is always more turbulent. There the slightest additional gust of wind oversets the little sailor and his vessel together. The whole navy, that but a few minutes before rode proudly and securely along, is now overturned, and a shipwreck of two or three thousand sail ensues. This, which is so unfortunate for the little animal, is generally the most lucky accident in the world for the Laplander on the shore; who gathers up the dead bodies as they are thrown in by the waves, eats the flesh, and sells the skins for about a shilling the dozen.

“It may be doubted if this is very sound biology,” Lucas observes. What an understatement. But he does go on to credit that there is something sublime in this bit of ridiculousness: “Yet there is about it a charming sympathy with the little squirrels; far more genuine, I feel, than Coleridge or his Mariner really felt for albatrosses ….”

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt

By the time he wrote Take Today: The Executive as Dropout with the help of Barrington Nevitt, an engineer and consultant, Marshall McLuhan had learned that an effective way to keep his name in the media was to give his books provocative titles, such as The Medium is the Massage and War and Peace in the Global Village. Aside from the–at the time–“with-it-ness” of its title, however, Take Today: The Executive as Dropout probably attracted more readers–not that there appear to have been all that many–more with McLuhan’s name than anything else.

One might think that McLuhan was trying to follow in the footsteps of Robert Townsend’s 1970 best-seller, Up the Organization, which took a counter-culture look at big, bureaucratic organizations–without questioning their basic purpose or the value of the life and goals of the typical businessman. But McLuhan, it turns out, didn’t think much of Townsend’s book: Townsend manifests the [Harold] Geneen pattern of hotted-up ‘camp.’ If there is one thing that is perfectly obvious about Geneen U., it is that it is a ‘replay’ of some very worn-out organization ploys and patterns.” Anyone who knows a bit about McLuhan’s ideas will recognize that “hotted-up” is not a complimentary term.

And it’s unlikely that the average Wall Street Journal reader of the early 1970s would have found much in the book that could be put to any use on the job or in getting up the career ladder. It’s true that one can find occasional statements in Take Today that seem to leap off the page in their prescience:

It is in this new dimension of “software” design that the difference between the old mechanical industry and the new electric circuitry becomes manifest. It is a difference not only of speed and diversity but also of knowledge and of the programming for special, personal needs.

Written at a time when programming inevitably involved lugging around long, rectangular boxes full of hundreds of punch cards (all of which had to be in exactly the right order), the idea of doing it for special, personal needs was more than a bit ahead of its time.

But for every glint of genius, there are a dozen examples of the sort of writing that may one day earn McLuhan the reputation of a 20th century Nostradamus–meaning, the sort of writing that just about anyone can interpret to mean just about anything he wants it to. Which is also, of course, the sort of writing one’s not sure really had any meaning in the first place. Take this example:

As concertmaster, satellite man would have to audition such selections as the Manhattan Project with exquisite prescience of “audience” effects. The “audience” of satellite man includes the “actors” and is not merely human but consists of all the resonances awakened everywhere.

Both sentences are grammatically correct–but meaningful? They’re like a conversation or radio broadcast you’re not quite close enough to hear fully: you hear the fragments, you understand what each fragment means by itself, but you can’t quite piece together what’s going on.

And then you get the beauts:

What the “practical man” doesn’t know is that facts are something made, as the word tells us (facto). Moreover, a fact cannot be connected without “seizing up.” The interval or gap is necessary to any practical action. The gap is where the action is. “Ask the man who owns one.” The artist and engineer exist to create the right gaps and to avoid unfunny connections.

It’s writing like this that reminds me that, at about the same time that McLuhan was working on this book, gurus like Maharaj Ji were managing to get people to offer up their life savings and clean toilets with similar gobbledygook–albeit spiritual rather than intellectual.

I spent an entertaining and amusing hour thumbing through Take Today. McLuhan was never anything if not an eclectic reader, and like his other books, this one is full of striking quotes from sources ranging from James Joyce and T. S. Eliot to Peter Drucker to an IEEE Transactions article to an obscure work on the structure and function of the Chinese civil service during the Ming dynasty. And he had a knack of coming up with headline statements that owe more than a little to Wyndham Lewis’ blasts:



They Had the Looks When Cooking the Books


Loved Labels Lost

But I found much of what I read to be as windy as a winter in Chicago without being a fraction as invigorating. It’s hard to believe people wrecked their lives to follow a smiling 15-year-old Indian guru, and it’s hard to believe there was a time when a book like this was considered profound.

Take Today: The Executive as Dropout, by Marshall McLuhan and Barrington Nevitt
New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1972

Recent Recommendations

I’ve received more than the usual number of emails from other fans of neglected books in the last few weeks, which is a bit embarrassing as I’ve had almost no time to devote to the site recently. Among these were some recommendations worth passing along.

Cover of NY Review Books' reissue of Judges of the Secret CourtJohn Crowley, whose 1981 novel, Little, Big, has itself been called a “neglected masterpiece,” wrote to mention that New York Review Classics just published David Stacton’s The Judges of the Secret Court. Judges is considered by some to be the best of Stacton’s trim, elegantly-written historical novels. It recounts the story of John Wilkes Booth and his fellow conspirators in the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Crowley’s introduction is unfortunately not available online, but you can find a short post and a lengthy series of comments about the book on Crowley’s LiveJournal site. When Stacton’s novel was first published, Robert Kirsch, reviewing it for the Los Angeles Times, called it “a superior historical fiction, accurate in detail, moving and compelling narrative and character. But it is something more than this as well, an exploration by a brilliant and thoughtful writer of the labyrinthine ways of good and evil.” I wrote about Stacton’s 1962 novel about Wendell Wilkie, Tom Fool, about four years ago, but put it in the “Justly Neglected?” category, comparing it to, “a cocktail party hosted by a brilliant but overbearing host — who drives his guests to the bar for another martini to tune out their host’s insufferable banter.”
Cover of Virago Modern Classics edition of Cullum
From Sweden, Bengt Broström wrote to recommend E. Arnot Robertson’s first novel, Cullum: “It caused a sensation with its sexual frankness.” was reissued as part of the Virago Modern Classics series back in 1990 but is out of print once again. At the time Cullum was first published, it received mixed reviews. The Saturday Review (UK, not US) said, “… it not only fails, it almost goes to pieces by the end.” Another reviewer found it showed “quiet dignity and well-restrained emotion,” while the Nation and Athenaeum found, “The whole love episode between Esther and Cullum is psychologically convincing.” Eighty-some years later, readers seem to find much to relate to in the story of the literature-mad Esther, who falls completely when she meets Cullum, her first real live writer.

Cover of Crest paperback edition of The Notion of SinFinally, Herschel Roth, catching up with my article on Mignon McLaughlin’s wonderful collection of original aphorisms, The Complete Neurotic’s Notebook, wrote to bring my attention to the work of her husband, Robert E. McLaughlin: “A minor Cheever, perhaps, but I’m surprised no one has brought back his novel, The Notion of Sin, to capitalize on the Mad Men craze.” Indeed, the Crest paperback edition of the novel makes the connection plain as day: “Madison Avenue, Sex & Success!” The book, which tells about a young Mad man torn between a sexy, sophisticated–and married–woman and his farm-fresh hometown girl–who turns out more comfortable with amorality than he–did get pretty positive reviews back in 1959. Time magazine gave it a feature notice, writing in a passage that can’t help but bring some of Mad Men’s characters to mind:

“His characters are the kind whose gay yet joyless lives make for gossip over countless canapes, but they have rarely been described with such quiet precision or understanding. Some of them are merely foolish, some merely mistake manners for morals, and some merely hurt themselves by being themselves. But the most interesting of them come close to having no self to hurt; they are hollow at heart, capable of sensation but not of feeling.”

Under Gemini, by Isabel Bolton

Our twin sons will be heading off to college in a few months, and it occurred to me recently to look into the subject of neglected books about twins. Despite the fact that twins are not, statistically, all that uncommon, there are relatively few books on the topic, aside from parenting guides. Probably the best known these days in Wally Lamb’s 1998 novel and Oprah’s Book Club selection, I Know This Much Is True, about an identical twin’s coming to grips with his highly disfunctional family and his place in the world.

At the other end of the commercial success spectrum from Lamb’s best-seller are two diametrically different books about twins. Donald Newlove’s Sweet Adversity his 1978 integration of two earlier novels, Leo & Theodore (1973) and The Drunks (1974), a 600-plus page whirlwind about siamese twins, their rough-and-tumble childhood, and their descent into alcoholism. Newlove’s prose is robust, full of great riffs, swinging between euphoria and nihilism. It’s a fantastic book that at times will reach into your chest, rip out your heart, and leave it in tatters. I first read it twenty-some years ago, and I kick myself for having utterly forgotten it until I went on this search.Cover of first US edition of 'Under Gemini'

It would be tough to find a book less like Sweet Adversity than Under Gemini Isabel Bolton’s slender, elegaic 1966 memoir of her early life with her identical twin sister, Grace. It’s short, poetically succinct, and restrained. Yet it has an emotional power greater even than that of Newlove’s tour de force.

Two tragedies punctual the decade or so spanned by story in Under Gemini. In 1887, just two weeks after the girls’ fourth birthday, their mother and father died of pneumonia on the same day. Then, ten summers later, as she watched, helplessly, Bolton’s sister drowned when their rowboat was carried away from them in the currents of Long Island Sound.

In between, the two girls–Mary (Bolton’s real name was Mary Britton Miller) and Grace–and their two older brothers and older sister were looked after in a fairly haphazard way. Their aging grandmother showed the greatest concern for them, offering as much comfort and protection as her diminishing strength could muster:

The double weight of sensibility, the impact of living moments–the smell of bread rising from the kitchen, of gingerbread just taken from the oven, the sound of squirrels surrying on the veranda roof, shadows of leaves on the bedroom wall, flames in the open fireplaces, the all-pervading smell of burning logs, the sense of unseen presences–all combined to make use feel so safe, so sheltered in this comfortable home our grandmother had given us.

Sadly, though, she died less than a year after the parents. Their custody was left to their Uncle James (James A. Rumrill, a railroad executive) and Aunt Anna, who saw to their material needs in a begrudging manner, hiring a spinster in her sixties to run their home and raise them.

Mary and Grace Miller, age 3, around 1886As Bolton portrays her, Miss Rogers had the best of intentions and cared deeply for the children, but she was utterly unequipped to take charge of herself, let alone five willful children, each dealing less rather than more ably with the loss of their parents and grandmother. Philip, one of the boys, threw a glass of water in her face. She brought in a hired man to help with the house and yard. He clearly adored Miss Rogers, but he also clearly spent much of his time half drunk or half asleep. Each Sunday Aunt Anna and Uncle James came to inspect the situation and each week they left unsatisfied. Eventually, Miss Rogers is let go and arrangements are made for the children to be farmed out to boarding schools for much of the year. Grace drowns not long before she and Mary are to be packed off. “My darling Mary, how I love you” are her last words to her twin sister.

Isabel Bolton, 1966Although she published a number of books of poetry under her own name, Miller came to the novel very late, publishing In the Days of Thy Youth in 1943, at the age of sixty, and then, as Isabel Bolton, the three novels for which she has achieved lasting critical recognition: Do I Wake or Sleep (1946); The Christmas Tree (1949); and Many Mansions (1952). These were reissued in 1997 as one volume, New York Mosaic, with an introduction by Doris Grumbach. At the time of their first publications, the books received the highest possible acclaim. Edmund Wilson judged her style “exquisitely perfect in accent.” Diana Trilling called her “The most important new novelist in the English language to appear in years.” Wilson is reputed to have fallen in love with his vision of Bolton as a bright and beautiful young thing, only to have find she was actually an elderly woman of upper class manners and discretion.

She came even later to dealing with her own experience. One reviewer wrote that Under Gemini reflected enormous strength of character in the moderation and perspective with which Bolton describes what must have been a near-over-whelming experience. “That business in which we are all perpetually engaged–the making of an individual soul–is an enterprise of memory,” she writes at the end of the book. “In our case it was a joint and not a single venture.”

What most distinguishes Under Gemini is how effectively Bolton conveys the unique sensation of encountering the world as two:

When I evoke those hours of childhood to live in them once more, it is not myself I see before me–it is she, the living image of myself, and there I stand revealed in all the sharp intensity of what the moment brought of pain or joy or curiosity or wonder or decision. I see my own face, my own dark eyes and hair, I hear my voice, my intonations and tricks of speech. The words that issue from her tongue are mine. Her expressions mantle, as I remember it, my countenance. Attuned to the same vibrations, with nerves that responded to the same dissonances and harmonies, we were one in body and in soul. What happened to one of use happened at the same instant to the other and both of us recognized exactly how each experience had registered in the other’s heart and mind.

It was never I but always we. It was never you or I but both of us. Never mine or yours but always ours. We were seldom referred to by those we lived among as Mary or as Grace but as the twins–I was Mary, she was Grace. This may be so.

Bolton was 83 when she published Under Gemini. Though she had abundant family connections with New York society, she lived most of her life in Greenwich Village, volunteering as a social worker and writing an occasional book of light poetry. She never married and lived on her own for nearly eight decades after losing Grace. That she was able to achieve at least critical success as a novelist so late in life is remarkable, but I suspect that what’s more telling is the fact that, at the age of 83, she could still summon so easily the sense of life as part of a larger being that was the two sisters together–and perhaps that she was never able to find another to replace the void left by Grace’s death.

Under Gemini was reissued by the Steerforth Press in 1999, but it’s no longer backlisted by them and is once again out of print.

Under Gemini: A Memoir, by Isabel Bolton (Mary Britton Miller)
New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1966

Theodor Fontane

One of the more noteworthy recent reissues in the wonderful New York Review Books Classics series is Theodor Fontane’s 1891 novel, Irretrievable. Fontane is considered by many of those familiar with his work as “clearly the greatest German novelist before Thomas Mann,” in the words of Gordon A. Craig, yet there are few of the truly major European writers of the nineteenth century–aside perhaps of Benito Pérez Galdós–who have suffered greater neglect among English-reading audiences.

Theodor FontaneIn part he suffers a common fate with other German novelists. His works, as much as those of his contemporaries such as Adalbert Stifter and Theodor Storm, have a tendency to pop up in English translations, usually from academic presses, and then vanish out of print just as quickly.

The loss is ours. German writers get a bum rap, a reputation for ponderousness than is only partly deserved–and wholly undeserved in Fontane’s case. “There is also in Fontane,” writes Phillip Lopate in his Afterword to Irretrievable (Unwiederbringlich), “a Montaigne-like equipoise, a sunny melancholy, an investment in domestic family life that steadfastly avoids the demonic and apocalyptic….” Perhaps this is due to the fact that Fontane came to fiction very late: his first novel was published when he was sixty years old. Throughout his work, you find a sense of perspective, humor, and tolerance very few writers possess before middle age.

The other thing most English readers encountering Fontane’s work for the first time note is how modern his themes are. The problems of marriage–particularly from the wife’s perspective–are one of his most frequent topics, as are its most common responses: divorce, adultery, and simple unhappiness. Take, for example, Lopate’s setting on the story in Irretrievable:

Irretrievable is the story of a marriage that has worn thin. The partners have been together for some twenty-three years, are raising two teenage children, and for the most part have enjoyed a happy marriage. Still, they have reached a point where they no longer are
charmed but are irritated by the limitations each sees in the other.

His women are fully-drawn individuals capable of living outside their husbands’ shadows, and his men–like most of us still–are more often well-intentioned but clueless than autocratic and evil. In fact, Lopate suggests the lack of a radical sense of evil might be one of the reasons Fontane’s work has had a hard time winning popular and critical readers in English.

Fortunately, though, there’s never been a better time to discover Fontane in English. In large part this is thanks to Antony Wood, whose small press, Angel Classics has reissued four of his novels–including an alternate translation of Unwiederbringlich, No Way Back, translated by Hugh Rorrison and Helen Chambers.

In addition to No Way Back/Irretrievable, Fontane books currently available in English translation include On Tangled Paths, translated by by Peter James Bowman. The tale of a romance between a cavalry officer and a seamstress. The officer intends for the relationship to be something of a place-holder until a wealthier and more socially acceptable wife can be found, but then the situation gets more complicated when they end up falling in love.

This novel is also available in not one but two alternate translations: Trials and Tribulations, translated by Katharine Royce, from Mondial Books, and in a volume from Continuum’s fine “The German Library” series, Delusions, Confusions, paired with another novella, “The Poggenpuhl Family.” Finally, there is Cecile, translated by Stanley Radcliffe, also from Angel Classics–also a story of adultery–in this case, initiated by the woman.

However, at least as many other English translations of Fontane’s works have disappeared within a few years of appearing in print:

Effi Briest

This is easily Fontane’s best-known work, often compared to Anna Karenina and Madame Bovary for its depiction of adultery. Thomas Mann once wrote that if one had to reduce one’s library to six novels, Effi Briest would have to be one of them. Although Angel Classics’ website shows their edition, also translated by Rorrison and Chambers, as being in print, Amazon shows that both theirs (issued as a Penguin Classic in the US in 2001) and the 1976 Douglas Parmee translation (also a Penguin Classic) as out of print.

Before the Storm, translated by R. J. Hollingdale

This was Fontane’s first major work, about the impact of the Napoleonic Wars on the Prussian gentry and peasants. It was issued as an Oxford World Classic in paperback in 1985, but used copies now go for $25 and up. It’s compared by some to War and Peace, but aside from sharing a historical period, the two books have little in common. Although both novels portray wars from the viewpoints of the people they crash over like tsunamis, there is very little drama and quite a lot of conversation in Fontane’s book. It does cause one to wonder, though, what Fontane might have produced if he’d tackled this subject when he was twenty or thirty years younger.

Under the Pear Tree

Although a minor work, Under the Pear Tree is the closest Fontane ever came to a novel of incident (if not action). Hradschek, a village innkeeper, murders a man who comes to collect a gambling debt … only to wind up dead himself soon after.

The Stechlin, translated by William Zwiebel

“At the end an old man dies and two young people get married—that is just about all that happens in 500 pages” was Fontane’s own summation of this book. The Stechlin was Fontane’s last major work. It’s been called, “probably the finest chronicle of the life style of the German upper classes in the late nineteenth century.” Camden House published William L. Zwiebel’s first-ever translation into English in 1995.

Douglas Parmée’s introductory essay to Irretrievable is now available on the NYRB webpage for the book, along with Lopate’s Afterword. The New Yorker also published a long essay, “Heroine Addict,” by Daniel Mendelsohn, in its 7 March 2011 issue.

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper

I had big hopes for Albert Halper’s 1966 novel, The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach. Even if the story turned out to be a dud, I figured the atmosphere would make it worth the ride.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach"And it does, at least at first. Leo Roth, president of the Dilly Dally Dress Company, a girlswear firm in Manhattan’s Garment District, heads to Miami on the trail of his cousin, Bernie Flugman, a ladies’ man and habitual gambler who’s stolen over fifteen thousand from the company. To kill time between his nights of cruising Miami’s hotels in search of Bernie, Leo lounges on the sun deck of the Bel Haven Hotel, where he meets up with “the three horsemen of Miami Beach”–Moe Stein, Hy Bronson, and Jerry Ryan, retired fifty-somethings who spend their time sunning, joking, and flirting with the fifty-something women regulars.

But before that, the three horsemen have to say goodbye to Eli Fensterberg, the late fourth. As Halper sketches the scene, it’s pure early 1960s Miami Beach:

Moe saw the two cabana boys from the Bel Haven move up to the casket and peer down at the lifeless face. He recognized a clerk from a Surfside delicatessen standing in line; the dead man had been a heavy buyer of anchovies, olives, and other tid-bits for his table. Behind the delicatessen clerk, who looked a little strange without his long white apron, stood Mr. Lipsky the tailor who had recently made two suits for the deceased. In the gloom Moe spotted Eli’s barber, then his eyes picked out the tall, corpulent owner of the Surfside Liquor Store. When you’re dead, Moe mused, you find out who your true friends are, only it’s too late.

Suddenly Moe stiffened. In the back of the chapel, sitting a few rows apart, were two tall, stunning blondes. They were the call girls Eli used to phone every couple of weeks, or whenever he felt like seeing one of them…. A feeling of envy came over him. What was the secret of Eli’s success with people? He had been an irascible little man, yet when he died the cabana boys, his delicatessen clerk, his liquor supplier, his motel manageress, his tailor, and even his call girls came to his funeral.

While there are plenty more scenes–in nightclubs, motels, swank neighborboods and low rent dives–that provide Halper a chance to paint word pictures, his renditions aren’t much better than the prose equivalent of motel/hotel art.

Nor does he develop any of his characters in any significant way. Leo Roth is quickly seduced by the comfortable life among the early retirees, he eventually decides that fifty-two is too early to call it quits, and he returns to New York. Bernie the gambler spends most of the book hiding in cheap hotels and hitting nightly poker games, desperately trying to win back what he owes Leo and others, he’s finally caught by a couple of thugs working for a Mafioso holding most of his markers. They beat him into unconsciousness, and when he finally comes to again in a hospital … well, nothing, really. He says he’s off gambling for good. Has he undergone some kind of transformative experience? Based on what Halper gives us, the only thing that seems to have been transformed are his nose and jaw.

Finally, after setting up the premise and bringing Leo and Bernie to Miami, the narrative wanders into a variety of cul-de-sacs, including a tedious subplot involving Rosita and Manuel, a pair of Cuban dance instructors. Aside from being in the same town at the same time, Leo and Bernie might as well have nothing to do with each other. Halper even fails to derive any climactic benefit from a passing hurricane.

The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach seems more like a first and very rough draft than a finished work. Something promising might have come from further work–tightening up the narrative, jettisoning the endless hand-wringing rounds of Leo and Rosita, and bringing the stories of Leo and Bernie to collision instead of stringing them on in infinite parallel. The Fourth Horseman Of Miami Beach was Halper’s last published novel, and it betrays more than a few signs of a writer losing steam and creative inspiration.

The Fourth Horseman of Miami Beach, by Albert Halper
New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1966

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring

I need to catch up with a post on some of my recent reads, most of which have turned out to be among their authors’ lesser efforts, unfortunately.

Cover of House of Stratus reissue of "Overlooked"Of the lot, by far the most interesting and, within its limited range, successful was Maurice Baring’s slim 1922 novel Overlooked. Had the term been in use back then, Overlooked would have been called an experimental novel. For what Baring undertook was truly an experiment in fiction.

The first half of the book is titled, “The Papers of Anthony Kay.” A blind man sent by his doctor for two month’s rest at a seaside resort called Hareville, a fictional stand-in for Deauville or a similar society retreat of the early 20th century. There he encounters a sampling of international society–a scandalous Italian/French widow; a French/Russian princess; an ambiguously Slavic intellectual; an upright but neer-do-well English lady, Mrs. Lennox, and her beautiful niece, Miss Jean Brandon; and an English novelist named James Rudd.

Kay contemplates writing a novel as a way of relaxing, and he and Rudd fall into discussing Miss Brandon. Kay quickly gives up on his idea, but she inspires Rudd to begin sketching out his own story based on his imaginative speculations about her life:

“She talks, but she cannot express herself. Or rather, she has nothing to express. At least, I think she has nothing to express : or what she has got to express is not what we think it is. I imagine a story like Pygmalion and Galatea. Somebody waking her to life and then finding her quite different from what the stone image seemed to promise, from what it did promise.”

While Rudd sequesters himself to work on his book, Kay befriends a cross-section of his hotel’s residents. With each of them, the conversation eventually gets around to the topic of Miss Brandon–her belligerent late father, her apparently broken engagement with an heir dispatched to India, her beauty and air of mystery. Each conversation is a mix of fact, gossip, and rumor, and each creates, in effect, a portrait of her from a different perspective.

Late in this first section, Miss Brandon’s erstwhile fiancé arrives in Hareville, but he seems to spurn her for the attentions of one of the scandalous widows du jour. Miss Brandon turns for solace to the mysterious Slav, and for a moment, they become secretly engaged. Kay departs before learning the outcome of the story.

Much of the second half of the book is devoted to the text of Rudd’s long short story, “Overlooked,” which he published in a private edition of 500, sending a copy to Kay. In “Overlooked,” Miss Brandon has become “Kathleen Farrel,” and Hareville “Saint-Yves-les-Bains.” All the main characters Kay encountered reappear with different names and slightly altered back stories.

As promised, Rudd provides a fairy tale to explain Brandon/Farrell’s sense of evanescence:

Once, when she was a little girl, she had gone to pick flowers in the great dark wood near her home, where the trees had huge fantastic trunks, and gnarled boles, and where in the spring-time the blue-bells stretched beneath them like an unbroken blue sea. After she had been picking blue-bells for nearly an hour, she had felt sleepy. She lay down under the trunk of a tree. A gipsy passed her and asked to tell her fortune. She had waved her away, as she had no sympathy with gipsies. The gipsy had said that she would give her a piece of good advice unasked, and that was, not to go to sleep in the forest on the Eve of St. John, for if she did she would never wake. She paid no attention to this, and she dozed off to sleep and slept for about half-an-hour. She was an obstinate child, and not at all superstitious. When she got home, she asked the housekeeper when was the Eve of St. John. It happened to fall on that very day. She said to herself that this proved what nonsense the gipsies talked, as she had slept, woken up, come back to the house, and had high tea in the schoolroom as usual. She never gave the incident another thought ; but the housekeeper, who was superstitious, told one of the maids that Miss Kathleen had been overlooked by the fairy-folk and would never be quite the same again. When she was asked for further explanations, she would not give any. But to all outward appearances Kathleen was the same, and nobody noticed any difference in her, nor did she feel that she had suffered any change.

Rudd plays out his version, including the return of the fiance and the secret engagement, which is broken off as the two lovers realize the arrangement could only work in a fantasy world free of the constraints of class, money and prejudices.

The book then returns to the “Papers of Anthony Kay.” Kay describes his reaction to “Overlooked” and discusses the book and the story of the real-life Miss Brandon with several people he knew from his time at Hareville. Kay and his friend Doctor Sabran conclude that Rudd got it wrong … but aren’t sure what “right” is:

“I am convinced of one thing only, and that is that the novelist drew false deductions from facts which were perhaps sometimes correctly observed.” [Sabran]

I said I agreed with him. Rudd’s deductions were wrong ; his facts were probably right in some cases; Sabran’s deductions were right, I thought, as far as they went; but we either had not enough facts or not enough intuition to arrive at a solution of the problem.

To another acquaintance, Kay argues that, “Rudd had started with a theory about Miss Brandon, that she was such and such person, and he distorted the facts till they fitted with his theory. At least, that was what I imagined to have been the case.”

In the end, Miss Brandon is reunited with her fiancé, who appears never to have any other objective in mind, and the pair enjoy the most conventional of marriages. Kay, Rudd, and almost everyone else in the book(s), it seems, were all guilty of reading far more into her situation than ever existed.

Characterization is not Baring’s forté in Overlooked. Kay, Rudd, and the rest are sketched just as superficially as Miss Brandon. But for Baring’s purposes, little more than stick figures are needed. Years before it got its name, Baring was experimenting with the Rashomon effect. Rudd applies a fantastic interpretation on Miss Brandon’s story, but his is just the most overt form of fiction in the book. Every one puts his or her spin on her story, influenced by all sorts of factors–from the English sense of propriety to the Italian love of the game of romance. Baring puts the final seal on the artificiality and impermanence of the social affairs of Hareville by noting the date of his departure from the town: June 27, 1914.

Overlooked was Baring’s second novel, published soon after Passing By, which is also something of a play on the nature of a work of fiction. Although the books received warm if not enthusiastic reviews, neither sold well. His next novel, C, was far more conventional in approach–a Bildungsroman set in Edwardian England–and weighed in at a whopping 700-plus pages. C is in print from Faber Finds.

Overlooked was reissued about ten years ago by the House of Stratus, which appears to be a hybrid between a legitimate reissue house and one of the many print-on-demand open source publishers. Stratus reissued a good chunk of Baring’s better work, each with a relatively attractive cover, between 2001 and 2003, but none of these appears to be in print now and Stratus no longer lists Baring among their authors. And the quality of their cover art–and editing–seems to have dropped dramatically, if the Caustic Cover Critic’s example of their version of Brain Aldis(s)’ Dracula Unbound is any indication. But save your money and download a free copy from the Internet Archive: Overlooked, by Maurice Baring.

Overlooked, by Maurice Baring
London: William Heinemann

From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, by David Wooldridge

Charles Ives has been one of my heroes ever since I read about his reaction to a man who started hissing at a performance of Carl Ruggles’ piece, “Men and Mountains,” in the early 1930s. Ives turned around and hissed back, “When you hear strong masculine music like this, sit up and USE YOUR EARS LIKE A MAN!”

It’s good advice for anyone who wants to open themselves up to new forms and styles of music. And applied to other senses, it’s good advice for learning to appreciate any form of art or experience that doesn’t wrap itself up in a gentle blanket of pleasantness.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "From the Steeples and the Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives"David Wooldridge’s From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives (first published in the U.K. under the title, Charles Ives: A Portrait) appeared in 1974, marking the centenary of Ives’ birth. Although Ives had by then won a sure place in musical history as the first important, and perhaps greatest, American composer, his work hadn’t–and may never–gain the level of popular recognition and appreciation as that of Copland, Gershwin, or Bernstein. A hundred years after he wrote most of it, his music still requires most listeners to sit up and put some effort into their listening.

Wooldridge’s own approach to Ives pretty much guaranteed that his book would receive the same scant acceptance that Ives’ music did with its first listeners. Although the U.K. edition of the book appears from its sedate cover to be a conventional biography, it’s hardly the sort of account that would sit well with the average fan of classical music.

A clue to Wooldridge’s literary inspirations comes from the book’s prologue, which opens with a quote from Charles Olson’s Call Me Ishmael, his influential 1947 celebration of the work of Herman Melville. “Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. As I see it Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.”

“Ives mounted,” Wooldridge writes. “His music rides on such space. The man, his life, the whole pattern of his thinking are witness to it. A sense of space, a use of space, an understanding of space that transcended metered time.” Like Melville–using Olson’s words, Ives had “a comprehension of PAST, his marriage of spirit to source”–and “a confirmation of FUTURE.”

Ives’ past, as Wooldridge shows, went back almost as far back in American history as any white man’s could. Captain William Ives landed in Massachussetts in 1635, and his family lines crossed paths with the Puritans, George Washington, Emerson, and Thoreau. His father George once helped a drunken Stephen Foster home from a Manhattan bar and led the band of the First Connecticut Heavy Artillery that paraded past Lincoln and Grant after the surrender of Richmond.

George passed along to Charles a unique mixture of popular American and classical European music. He led bands that played at camp meetings and holiday celebrations in Charles’ home town of Danbury, Connecticut. He also encouraged his son to study the piano and organ and shared what formal training he’d had in composition. By the age of 18, Charles was working for pay as the organist of St. Thomas’ Church in New Haven, where he later attended Yale University.

At Yale, his primary teacher was a stalwart figure of the American musical establishment, one Horatio William Parker. As his Wikipedia entry puts it, “During his lifetime he was considered to be the finest composer in the United States, a superior craftsman writing in the most advanced style.” He didn’t think much of Ives’ student work and couldn’t even remember him years later, in a letter to Wooldridge’s father. Although Wooldridge acknowledges, “Who all remembers the names of the great composers’ teachers?,” he can’t resist the chance to give Parker his posthumous come-uppance:

Why pick on Parker?

FOR ONE REASON ONLY. Parker was a fluent, competent, intelligent musician who ought to have been able to recognize a NEW VOICE when he heard it. No one asked him to acknowledge Ives as America’s musical Messiah–though he’d have enjoyed that privilege. He didn’t have to like what he heard. He even could have hated it. And he didn’t. He wasn’t even listening.

And I mean REALLY listening–not just letting the ears lie back on a bubble-bath of agreeable, ready-made sound. Musicians, precisely the fluent ones, make the poorest listeners, because they get bemused by the sound of their own voices–singers, players, composers–cannot understand there is anything more to it than fluency of sound, accuracy of sound, opulence of sound, refinement of sound. And sound has so little to do with music–nice, agreeable, chromium-plate sound.

This passage provides ample evidence of Wooldridge at his most idiosyncratic and iconoclastic. Elsewhere in the book he launches into a rant about THE SYSTEM that brings one right back to the spirit of 1960s student protests. I imagine Wooldridge saw himself “sticking it to the Man” in writing this book.

Which was certainly one reason the book dropped into obscurity moments after being published. I doubt this kind of writing held much appeal for many of Wooldridge’s most likely buyers. Nor does it age well. Fortunately, such passages are rare.

The more striking and interesting aspect of From the Steeples and Mountains is Wooldridge’s approach to the narrative of Ives’ life and work. I may be going too far out on a limb with this, but I think there’s an important clue behind his use of the Charles Olson quote about Melville, and that clue leads to the work of Paul Metcalf–Melville’s great-grandson and a student of Olson’s.

As his Wikipedia entry puts it, Metcalf’s “work generally defies classification.” Best known–for those who knew his work at all–for his 1965 novel, Genoa, Metcalf relies extensively on the use of original texts, weaving slender threads of his own narration to create a unifying theme. As with Metcalf’s books, there is barely a page in From the Steeples and Mountains comprised solely of Wooldridge’s own words. And like Metcalf, Wooldridge uses quoted text for visual as well as narrative effect. He tosses in snatches and bursts of texts from letters, newspaper articles, songs, poems, concert programs and advertisement like Ives tosses musical quotations into his own pieces, very deliberately creating the semblance–but only the semblance–of a “slam-bang racket.”

Metcalf’s work is very much a meditation upon history, particularly American history, and particularly American history of the 19th century. And like Metcalf, Wooldridge is constantly drawing links between Ives and figures such as Melville, Emerson and Thoreau, highlighting the uniquely American nature of their voices and world views. He draws heavily on Ives’ own writing, including Essays Before a Sonata (1921) and the extensive marginalia in Ives’ compositions, which include such gems as the following, from a score-sketch of The Fourth of July:

Mr. Price: Please don’t try to make things nice! All the wrong notes are right. Just copy as I have–I want it that way …

As Wooldridge tells the story, Ives’ creative energies were worn down by a combination of ill-health and distress at the development of American politics and the entry into World War One. A prolonged recovery after a series of heart attacks in 1918 led to his eventual abandonment of composing entirely. His wife found him in his studio one morning in 1925 “with tears in his eyes, saying he couldn’t seem to compose any more–nothing went well–nothing sounded right.”

Ives’ failure, to Wooldridge, is America’s failure:

. . . . . Ives the composer remains, still in largely silent reproach of a nation’s music-making, its way of life, the way of life of music-making as a whole. Still largely silent, because few have ventured his music to be properly heard, or, being properly heard, accorded proper attention. But the world cannot wait while America gets it together, and now the sound, impatient, is gone out into other lands. Charles Ives is the FERMATA. Full stop/half circle. End and beginning.

I’m not sure David Wooldridge succeeded in accomplishing what he set out to do in writing From the Steeples and Mountains. If he intended to use the story of Charles Ives to send a message to America about the need to look past the “establishment sop we use to salve our consciences in, 99%, lip service,” America clearly took less note of Wooldridge’s message than it did of Ives’ own work.

In the process, however, he did create a portrait that does a remarkably effective job of setting Ives’ life and work into a cultural context and in conveying a sense of his character and his musical sensibility that irresistibly leads the reader to becoming the listener. I defy anyone to read From the Steeples and Mountains and not find oneself soon downloading and enjoying Ives’ music. And I also expect to dig out my copies of Paul Metcalf’s books and immerse myself again into the sounds of another uniquely American voice.

From the Steeples and Mountains: A Study of Charles Ives, by David Wooldridge
New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1974

The Coin of Carthage, by Bryher

Cover of UK edition of "The Coin of Carthage"History with a capital “H” is happening throughout the twenty-some years spanned in the course of Bryher’s 1964 novel [amazon_link id=”B0013WK5BI” target=”_blank” ]The Coin of Carthage[/amazon_link]–the Second Punic War, to be specific, during which Hannibal crossed the Alps with elephants, conquered much of the Italian peninsula, and then was forced to retreat and was defeated by Scipio Africanus at the Battle of Zama.

But Bryher’s subject is history writ small–the history that happens on the margins of capital “H” history. Her story starts with the Greek trader Zonas waking in a stable after being robbed and beaten by a couple of bandits and winds its way through a half-dozen other main characters–a fellow trader named Dasius; Karus and Orbius, two Roman soldiers and friends; Karus’ mother, Domina Sybilla; a slave named Verna and a Carthaginian ship captain named Mago. Each, in his or her own way, is a victim of war, even though none of them dies in battle and only Karus is actually wounded. Their losses are psychological less than physical, but for Bryher, they’re more profound and lasting.

The two great losses in the book, in fact, are friendships. Karus develops an intense attachment to Orbius, a platonic bond with strong homosexual undertones, that is broken when Karus is wounded and Orbius is taken prisoner in a minor skirmish with a Carthaginian reconnaissance party. When they are reunited years later, Karus finds that years of captivity has turned Orbius’ spark of life into a smouldering anger and thirst for revenge. Mago befriends Dasius and the two live together on Mago’s farm near Neapolis for several years until they are separated in an early Roman assault on Carthage. When, several years after, Dasius manages to return in search of his friend, he learns that Mago had killed himself in despair for the loss of all he valued–his farm, his ship, his hopes for his own country and people. Though handsomely rewarded for services to Rome, Dasius is left to spend out his days in mourning.

I have to confess that I didn’t really appreciate the book or what Bryher was doing until the final chapters. The story seems to wander along, the focus shifting from character to character, with no dramatic peaks. In terms of action, there are only two moments of real narrative tension–when Zonas runs into the midst of a Carthaginian parade to save his mule and accidentally meets Hannibal, and when Dasius helps Orbius escape from his prison–and neither is significant in its affect on any of the characters involved. Much of the book is devoted to casual conversations–over a fire, over a table at an inn, over a cup of bad wine, sitting in a courtyard as the suns goes down.

But this is, I think, what Bryher tried to show in [amazon_link id=”B0013WK5BI” target=”_blank” ]The Coin of Carthage[/amazon_link]. The lives of her characters are not marked by milestones or major events but by what happens in between them. Orbius isn’t wounded in battle but by years of degradation, squalor, and neglect as a prisoner. The material comforts Dasius gains by the book’s end do little to compensate for the many pleasant days he spent working with Mago in the fields and orchards. War–the big “H” history–is a great wave that scoops up little pebbles and scatters them over a beach, barely taking notice of them in process.

This sense of the insignificance of ordinary lives is heightened by something I found Bryher conveyed better than any other author writing about pre-Christian times, which is the perspective of a world where the only real divine power is Fate. Characters–particularly Zonas–make offerings to the gods in hopes of appeasing Fate, but Fate is clearly an enormous and impersonal force whose reasons are never expected to be understandable to mortals–rather like war. What with Fate and war lined up against them, no wonder Zonas and Bryher’s other characters focus on smaller and more intimate matters.

I read [amazon_link id=”B0013WK5BI” target=”_blank” ]The Coin of Carthage[/amazon_link] as the first few days of news from the devastation of Japan’s recent earthquakes and tsunami was filling the airwaves, and I kept thinking of Bryher’s characters. I don’t suppose the fact that friends and family members died in a once-a-century event provides the slightest comfort to any of the survivors. Only journalists and historians have a good reason to distinguish between big-H history and little-h history.

The Coin of Carthage, by Bryher
London: Collins, 1964

Death and the Good Life, by Richard Hugo

Sometimes my instincts for the neglected fail me. I picked a battered copy of the poet Richard Hugo’s 1980 murder mystery, Death and the Good Life out a discard pile in a thrift shop recently, and was so certain it was long out of print that I read the whole thing before bothering to check. Turns out that it’s been reissued twice–by the small Montana press, the Clark City Press, in 1991 and by the University of Idaho Press in 2003–and is still in print.Cover of first U.S. paperback edition of "Death and the Good Life" by Richard Hugo

Oh, well, it made for an entertaining evening in any case. Hugo’s sleuth, an ex-Seattle cop named Al Barnes now working as a deputy sheriff in Sanders County, Montana, investigates two cases where the victims both died from multiple axe blows to the head. They soon prove quite unrelated. One he manages to solve in just a few days–the other ultimately takes the better part of a year, and winds up involving cowboy-sized helpings of Freudian psychology–sexual jealousy, twins, incest, and sadism, just to name a few.

I’m not a big mystery fan, so I can’t speak with authority on this point, but it seems to me that there are only a couple of things that make a mystery worth reading: good characterization, good atmosphere, and intriguing twists–and in that order. By that standard, Hugo scores 66%. Al Barnes is an entertaining narrator. He’s an experienced cop but quite a softy at the core–he earned the nickname “Mush-Heart” for his tendency to let off speeders for the slimmest excuse. He’s living with Arlene, a local bartender and single mom, but his eyes haven’t stopped wandering: “What a nice world it is when you get old enough to see how attractive women are at all ages,” he comments at one point.

Hugo moved to Missoula, Montana in the mid-1960s and taught creative writing at the University of Montana for most of the rest of his life (he died of leukemia in 1982). Although Missoula is a decent-sized town of almost 70,000 people (probably closer to 50,000 back when Hugo lived there), it’s surrounded in all directions by lots and lots of sparsely populated forests, mountains, and high prairies. It’s a good place to get away from things, but being a good day’s drive from any big city, it can also seem like a prison. From what I’ve read of Hugo’s life, it took him a while to get the feeling that he had to be someplace else out of his system.

Al Barnes has certainly got the feeling out of his system: “I was sure it was smooth sailing from here on out. I put on twenty pounds in fourteen months or so in Plains and settled back into a life of peace and quiet.”

Until one–then two–people wind up with axe-holes in their skulls. Tapping into Barnes’ big-city detective experience, the sheriff appoints him chief investigator. He spends much of the rest of the book outside of Plains–first in Idaho and then in Portland, Oregon. I won’t attempt to summarize the plot, since it struck me as no better than anyone else’s convoluted puzzle of motives and long-hidden secrets.

What raises the book to the slightly-better-than-average murder mystery level is Barnes’ narrative voice, which manages to be both world-weary and naive at the same time. Hugo definitely managed to capture that special laconic tone of a true man of the West: “Yellow Bear and I sat in mutual depression and silence for half an hour. We said a lot to each other in that half hour, and we didn’t break the silence once.”

Death and the Good Life, by Richard Hugo
New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981

“The 10 Best Neglected Literary Classics,” from the Guardian

Source: Rachel Cooke, “The 10 best Neglected literary classics – in pictures,”, The Observer, Sunday 27 February 2011

The always-watchful Robert Nedelkoff passed along this link from last month. Noting the BBC’s dramatisation of Winifred Holtby’s long-neglected novel, South Riding, Rachel Cooke proposes ten more titles worth rediscovering. Fortunately for interested readers, all are in print–at least in the U.K.–thanks to Virago Press, Persephone Books, Capuchin Classics, NYRB Classics, and others.

Here is the full list of titles:

• The Real Charlotte, by Somerville and Ross (1894)

• The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns (1959)

“The Vet’s Daughter tells the story of 17-year-old Alice, who lives with her savage veterinary father (a “terrible genie” in a waxed moustache and yellow gloves) in a horrible south London suburb. When she escapes his tyranny – she moves to the country, where she discovers a peculiar talent – Alice’s life seems to be improving. But it can’t last. A return to Daddy and his new wife and things grow nastier than ever. Nightmarish.”

• The Rector’s Daughter, by F. M. Mayor (1924)

• School for Love, by Olivia Manning (1951)

“School for Love tells the story of Felix Latimer, a young orphan who is marooned in wartime Jerusalem, alongside other flotsam and jetsam, in lodgings belonging to the repulsive Miss Bohun. A tremendous book about the way in which war makes adults of children – and avarice monsters of us all.”

• The Wife: A Novel, Meg Wolitzer (2003)

• A Way of Life, Like Any Other, Darcy O’Brien (1977)

“A Way of Life, Like Any Other is a coming-of-age story like no other. Set in 50s Hollywood, the novel is narrated by a teenager called Salty, whose father once starred in westerns and whose mother was a goddess of the silver screen. In the old days, they enjoyed the high life, but now their careers have crashed, their marriage is broken, and the only way is down.”

• The Odd Women, George Gissing (1893)

• The Blank Wall,Elisabeth Sanxay Holding (1947)

“The Blank Wall has been filmed twice – as The Reckless Moment in 1949, and as The Deep End in 2001 – and its author was admired by Raymond Chandler. But does it hold up today? Oh, yes. Lucia Holley is a suburban housewife coping alone while her husband serves in the Pacific. Then, one morning, she finds the body of her teenage daughter’s dubious lover and, desperate to protect her family, rapidly becomes implicated in his murder. Will she keep her cool? Atmospheric and difficult to put down, Sanxay Holding is as clinical and as clever as Patricia Highsmith.”

• Ann Veronica, by H. G. Wells (1909)

• [The Victorian Chaise-longue, Marghanita Laski (1953)

“Melanie Langdon, spoilt and sickly and recovering from TB, lies down on her antique chaise-longue one afternoon in 1953 and wakes up trapped inside the body of a young Victorian woman called Milly. Is she dreaming? No. Melanie really is marooned in a claustrophobic world that stinks of stale clothes, rancid butter and hypocrisy (judging by the whispers of the servants, Milly has been involved in some kind of scandal). More terrifyingly, the body Melanie inhabits is far frailer than her own. A book that will cure you for ever of your secret longing to live in Barsetshire.”

The Violet Dots, by Michael Kernan

I first read The Violet Dots after finishing Prof. Donald Emerson’s course on the First World War as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. My research for that course had led me to my first neglected discovery, W. V. Tilsley’s Other Ranks, and I had kept on reading about the experience of combat on the Western Front, snatching up whatever new titles came out, such as John Ellis’ remarkable Eye-Deep in Hell.

Michael Kernan, a reporter with the Washington Post, was inspired by Martin Middlebrook’s 1972 book, The First Day on the Somme, which followed about ten different British soldiers through the lead-up, attack, and aftermath of one of the war’s greatest battles. Kernan wanted to focus in on the life of one veteran of the Somme and asked Middlebrook for a reference. Middlebrook happily suggested Tom Easton, a private with the 1st Tyneside Scottish, 34th Division who’d kept a diary throughout his time on the Front. Middlebrook had interviewed Easton and collected material on his wartime experiences, but had been forced to drop his story from the book for the sake of space.

Kernan travelled to meet Easton, who was now retired and living in a former mining town in Northumberland. As the reader quickly sees, Tom Easton was quite a remarkable man even without considering his experiences in the war. Born into a large and poor miner’s family, he followed his father and brothers into the pit. Perhaps he would have become just another working man had he not joined the Army in November 1914. But when he returned, he proved a natural leader, playing a large role in trade union and Labour Party organizing in his community. He married, raised a family, played in a local amateur orchestra, served on his local council, and in dozens of ways helped better the lives of the people in his town. Although soft-spoken, good-humored and humble, he was also a man of granite-hard strength and character.

While Kernan first saw in Tom Easton just a way to connect to a time over sixty years in the past, he soon comes to view him as a model of integrity and commitment, and it almost seems that the story is being pulled away from the war and transformed into a portrait of Tom. But Kernan gently insists on returning with Tom to the scene of the battle, and what follows is a stunning lesson in just how deep and long the scars of combat can run. As the pair walk through cemeteries and fields, retracing the events of the Somme, the calm, self-assured man of eighty is transformed into a fearful, shaking teenager sobbing with uncontrollable grief, remembering a friend last seen running toward the German line shouting, “Mother! Mother! Help me!”

Tom Easton died in 1980. Kernan retired from the Post in 1989 and published one other book, a novel titled The Lost Diaries of Frans Hals (which, from the looks of the reviews on Amazon, I will have to add to my list). He died in 2005. “He was a glorious writer who could make anything interesting,” recalled Mary Hadar, a colleague, for his obituary.

The Violet Dots, by Michael Kernan
New York: George Braziller, 1978

Twin Beds, by Edward Salisbury Field

Twin Beds was a book ahead of its time. Its time being somewhere between the mid-1930s and the mid-1950s, the golden era of screwball comedies. For Twin Beds is just the sort of comedy of errors you’d expect to see in a Preston Sturges movies or an episode of “I Love Lucy.”

Blanche and her husband Henry live in a New York apartment. Looking to buy a new bed, she lets the salesman convince her to purchase that novelty, a set of twin beds, instead–they’re “stylish and everybody was using them.” Blanche and Henry are happy trend-followers, but Blanche’s ma, visiting from Centerville, finds the situation a little scandalous.

This would be the end of the matter but for the ensuing set of accidents. Henry heads out for a night of bowling and beer with the fellas–which puts Ma, already at odds with the new fangled ways of life in the big city:

Pa had never had a night out, so why should Henry! It wasn’t safe for married men to go gallivanting around alone nights; it gave them wrong ideas. What if Henry did work hard all week! Hadn’t Pa worked hard, too! Hard work was good for men; it kept them from getting too skittish. Besides, New York wasn’t like Centerville. New York was a wicked city, full of temptations. “And you needn’t tell me times has changed,” said Ma; “men are just the same as they always was.”

“Yes, Ma,” I said, “but women ain’t.”

“What did you say!”

“I said Henry has a perfect right to go out Saturday nights if I let him.”

“Well, it ain’t right,” declared Ma. “If Henry loved you the way he ought to, he wouldn’t want to leave you.”

Blanche and Ma retire for the night. Somewhere around midnight, a man staggers into the apartment, fumbles to get his clothes off, and climbs into Henry’s bed. Listening in the dark, Blanche thinks it’s Henry.

It’s not, of course. It’s one of their neighbors, who’s mistaken their place for his as he teeters home from his own night out. What are Blanche and Henry to do, particularly if they don’t want to upset Ma? Well, the whole affair ultimately involves a fire escape, an enormous clothes hamper, a policeman, an angry wife, slamming doors, thrown shoes and most of the other comic cliches short of a rolling pin.

In fact, Twin Beds was such prime material that Field made it into a play, co-written with Margaret Mayo, and Hollywood filmed it not once, not twice, but three times–in 1920 starring Carter and Flora Parker DeHaven (Pa and Ma of Gloria); in 1929 starring Jack Mulhall; and in 1942 with George Brent and Joan Bennett.

An interesting footnote to: Some years after Robert Lewis Stevenson’s death in 1894, Field went to work for his widow, Fanny. At the time, Field was 23 and Fanny was in her sixties. They grew very close, and when she died, he reported said she was “the only woman in the world worth dying for.” Which didn’t stop him from promptly marrying Stevenson’s daughter, Belle, who just 22 years older than him.

You can find digital versions of the book online at the Internet Archive:

Coming in July 2011: The Neversink Library

Melville House Publishing, which succeeded in bringing the works of the German novelist Hans Fallada from deep dark neglect into the bright lights of bookshop display tables in 2009 with the publication of Every Man Dies Alone, will launch a new series devoted to long-out-of-print titles–The Neversink Library–in July 2011. The series, named after a ship in Melville’s early novel, White-Jacket, “champions books from around the world that have been overlooked, underappreciated, looked askance at, or foolishly ignored.” Which sounds pretty much like what this site does.

The series will start with a total of 8 titles, each published in a distinctive two-color cover design featuring silhouettes–the work of art director Christopher King. Two of the titles–The Train and The President— continues the rediscovery of the works of Georges Simenon started by NYRB Classics, which has published eleven of his novels so far.

It will also include The Eternal Philistine, by the Austro-Hungarian writer, Ödön von Horváth, a contemporary of Fallada’s better known to English-speaking audiences as a playwright. The last time one of von Horváth’s novels was published in English was 1978, when his allegory of Nazism, The Age of the Fish, came out in U.S. paperback with a truly wretched cover that helps one appreciate the elegant simplicity of Mr. King’s designs.

New Source added: “Forgotten Authors,” from The Independent

Christopher FowlerStarting in August 2008, the Independent has been publishing a series of short pieces by Christopher Fowler, thriller writer and dramatist, devoted to the subject of “forgotten authors.” As Fowler himself admits, “Nobody wants to be thought of as vanished, but shelf-life is fleeting. With stock in chain stores governed by computers, the only way of finding certain books is to head for independents or to search online.”

Looking through his articles, I’m surprised, as a veteran browser of shelves of used books, to find names like Mazo de la Roche, Mary Renault, Georgette Heyer, and John Dickson Carr. But on reflection, that probably says more about my age than the awareness of today’s readers.

Unfortunately, The Independent has not made it easier to go through the archives of this series, so I have included the full set (thus far) here.

Thanks to Robert Nedelkoff, who found out himself from Mike Orthofer’s note at the Complete Review, for passing this along.

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer

I’ve hesitated to write about Tiffany Thayer’s books up to now because they are all, as far as I can tell, just plain awful. They’re sleazy, pandering, full of wooden characters and plot devices, and suffer from Thayer’s logorrhea, which appears never to have been moderated by any editor. Next to Thayer, Harold Robbins, Danielle Steel, or even the average Harlequin Romance author looks like Leo Tolstoy. Despairing of the state of the novel in the late 1930s, F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that no one read anything but the Book of the Month Club’s latest pick–although “curious children nosed at the slime of Mr. Tiffany Thayer in the drug-store libraries.”

One of David Berger's illustrations from Tiffany Thayer's "Thirteen Women"Which is also, of course, what also makes them almost irresistable. If you’re going to read a bad book, you don’t want one that’s half-heartedly bad, one whose author betrays any misgivings or sense of aesthetic standards. You want a full, unrepentant wallow–and that’s exactly what you get. In the case of Thirteen Women, you get adultery–both hetero- and homosexual–suicide, murder, rape, revenge, envy, gossip, corruption, show business, clairvoyance, yoga, blackmail, and chain letters. And I probably left something out of that list.

The story is, at best, preposterous. A group of women, all former members of a literary club at a prestigious girls’ school, receive mysterious letters from a Swami Yogadachi. The letters foretell some terrible event that will occur to each within the next few weeks. And sure enough, it does–at least to the first few. One commits suicide. Another starves to death. A third murders her cheating husband in front of his entire office.

Thayer brings in a medical expert, Dr. Blundein, to assure us that what’s going on is not clairvoyance but the susceptibility of the female mind:

“She was killed by suggestion.”

“Good God!”

“The power of the mind is almost boundless. Sometimes it is the power of the weakness or twistedness or the prejudice of a mind. I have seen hysteria break bones; actually snap a fibula, while the patient was prone on a bed — apparently unconscious.”

“A woman?”

“Of course. Men are seldom hysterical.”

See–I did leave something out: male chauvinism.

A lifelong advocate of skepticism (see Doug Skinner’s excellent article on Thayer and his connection with Charles Fort), Thayer can’t be bothered with mysteries. He tells us in the first chapter who the culprit is, in a paragraph that gives you a good sense of his shaggy-dog approach to storytelling:

The person guilty of whatever crime you find here was an half-caste, born in Java, an extraordinary woman; a woman with wide, full, undulating hips — strong shoulders and bust to match; a woman not unlike Mrs. O’Neill in general outline — if Mrs. O’Neill had not worn a girdle. That girdle had become necessary only after Bobby’s birth. Before that, her flesh had been solid and firm and resilient, which the guilty one’s never was. But we can say they were both Junoesque — if Juno can be imagined just a little softer than marble has translated her. If we can imagine a Juno so soft that one’s finger might leave a dent in a thigh, say, for twenty or thirty seconds? No one wants to think of a Juno like that, but neither did George O’Neill want to think of a wife like that, yet, there Laura was. One never knows, at twenty-two, what six or seven years will bring. And George half blamed himself. After all, she couldn’t have had Bobby without his help, so the breaking down of her constituent tissues was at least fifty per cent his fault. It takes a broad-minded man to look at it that way. George was all of that. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too,” he always said — and until his meerschaum was thoroughly colored, he kept it covered snugly in chamois.

It’s paragraphs like this that make me pretty confident that Thayer’s motto, when it came to writing, was “Go with the flow.” I can’t imagine what kind of planning would have led from a half-caste woman with undulating hips to a meerschaum pipe in the space of a dozen sentences.

Thayer delighted in playing up the salaciousness of his books–he went on to publish Adult’s Companion–“Tales of the eternal passions … by the greatest writers of amorous literature.” But in truth, he was terrible when it came to writing about sex. Here, for example, is how he deals with a night of passion:

Tom’s arms were frightful and his nude chest rather like a pigeon’s, but because Nellie experienced, or seemed to experience, an holy rapture at their contact with her own more than adequate complements, the wind bated its breath and the stars blinked blissfully as climax after climax was reached time after time.

What I mean to say is that all through the night, while Anne ransacked the Youngstown hotels with a second-hand revolver in her purse, Tom was giving his entire time and all his swiftly ebbing energy to that man-killing occupation which Nature has made exhilarating to conceal its basic insidiousness.

This is the sort of thing that led Dorothy Parker, in a New Yorker review of another Thayer novel, An American Girl, to write, “He is beyond question a writer of power; and his power lies in his ability to make sex so thoroughly, graphically, and aggressively unattractive that one is fairly shaken to ponder how little one has been missing.”

We also see in the above passage one of Thayer’s many typographical quirks, which led Parker to exclaim, “… ‘an hollow square,’ ‘an Hapsburg,’ and ‘an hill.’ ‘An hill,’ for God’s sake! It could happen to anybody who had no ear and had never got beyond the fourth grade.” She sums up his prose style as, “an entirely inexplicable idiom, and one that irritates me more acutely than anything I have encountered in letters since Mr. A. A. Milne minted the phrase ‘a hummy hum.'”

Thirteen Women was made into a film within a few months of its publication in 1932. Starring Irene Dunne and Myrna Loy, “Thirteen Women” is a good example of a talkie from the brief period before the Hayes code took effect, and was considered so lurid that RKO trimmed out two of the dozen deaths in the picture soon after its first release. You can read several appreciations of the film, at The Irene Dunne Project and Une Cinephile. And, if you have the stamina, you can watch the whole thing online at YouTube: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, and Part 6.

You can also find the text of Thirteen Women online at the Internet Archive: Be sure to browse through one of the formats that preserve David Berger’s illustrations from the book, some of which were pretty strong stuff for their time.

By now it should be obvious that I’ve concluded that Tiffany Thayer’s novels are the literary equivalent of potato chips: no damn good for you but too hard to pass up from time to time. I’ve got The Prince of Taranto, his last book–amounting to some 1,267 pages, published in three slipcased volumes and intended to be the first of 21 titles in a series about origins and life of Mona Lisa (viz. logorrhea)–sitting in my basement, along with a few others from his drugstore library period, and one of more of them will, like scum, eventually surface here.

Thirteen Women, by Tiffany Thayer
New York: Triangle Books, 1932

The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blum

About a dozen years before James Joyce invented Molly Bloom’s soliloquy, Ada Blom wrote her own soliloquy and published it herself under the odd title, The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub. She offered her 100-some page booklet for sale: “This book will be sent by mail, postpaid, to any address upon receipt of 25 cents in silver.” And she put her proud and somewhat defiant portrait on the front page.

“I was born in Sweden, of Swedish parents,” she begins. It is about the last straight-forward sentence in the book. Ada was quite obviously a self-taught writer as well as publisher, but her voice and outlook have a brilliant daftness and honesty:

When I start in to criticise a person I always begin at the lower, and, firstly, he wore commonplace, soft-leather shoes. I find these new styles abominable. It is something radically wrong about the man who wore them. I’ll climb a little. Then there comes an evening shirt, stiff and stately. Then there is the head to describe, and I commence with the ears. The ears were deceiving, though. I’ll tell you that some other time. Blonde, curly hair, having the latest style of tint. The forehead was innocent and humorous — eyes with a sad longing in them like some little children have when they are out for mischief. A beauty mole on the right cheek, a good nose, a teasing-looking mustache of the right kind and a chin which said: “I am going to have it, but if 1 don’t get it I don’t care.” That was the look of the Echo from the Swedish mountains.

She is born and raised in a small town and taught strict Lutheran morality. When she asks her father, innocently, why God must be so angry and vengeful, he beats her with a rod, and by the time she is fifteen or so, she runs away from home to escape his abuse and harsh Christianity.

A string of jobs gets her first to Denmark, then Germany, where she gets a job singing in a music hall. A series of men try to woo her and she eventually falls for a diamond merchant from Amsterdam. After many rounds of promises and disappointments, she tracks him down in Wiesbaden and discovers that he is both married and confidence man. So she buys a cheap passage to America, landing in New York.

Ada was nothing if not industrious. Though her fortunes rise and fall more than a few times in the course of the story, she always manages to pick herself up, dust herself off, and start all over again. She manages to save enough money to buy own townhouse and set herself up as a landlord. Then she loses it, winds up back on the street, gets a job as a hotel scrub–a situation that lasts all of about two pages, despite the title–and then as a waitress, then as a singer again, and then returns into real estate. There are several rounds of this before the book’s abrupt end.

Her problem, in a nutshell, is a weakness for the wrong type of man. The confidence man is Wiesbaden proves the rule, not the exception. Her first husband, one John Shea, turns out to be a drunk, a thief, and an adulterer who tries to rob and then murder her. She falls for the concertmaster in one of the New York music halls, an affair she recalls in a rambling revery that can’t help but bring Molly Bloom’s to mind:

J–Jealousy. Yes, that is the course of my lady. I was jealous, and maybe I had no reason to be jealous; but K–kalsomine. Not at all. I don’t paint and powder any more. For whom should I bother? L–lament. Yes, but not here in the in park. M–money; money. Yes, the little I have left. What can I do with it alone and in a sore dilemma, sick and sorrowful? N–name and nobody he called me. No one and nobody. That was our last word of parting. Am I nothing at all? No, I suppose not. Well, O—-ordained. Am I ordained to this continued suffering? Yes, I suppose I am. P–Paradise. Yes there is a Paradise at least; that is if one can eat substantial food and drink plenty of water only; then you can work with brain or body and you’ll get tired and youll sleep—-sleep. If I only could sleep. No, I only slumber now and then, and then I am plagued with the nightmare and see hideous sights before my face. Q–yes, that is the question. Where will I go to? R-R-R–R–reminds me of something. R–what was it? I hear a violin around me and I see a sweet severe face, the chin resting on a white silk handkerchief, and both caress the violin through his glasses. I can see two noble, brown eyes watching me on the stage. With his right arm he holds the violin bow and caressingly and very carefully he strokes the violin until he has let me find my B, moll, tune and then we both join in together and tell each other through wonderful music how good, how true, what a happy life we could live together. But no; we both drank beer–could not afford to buy good beer, but had the tin can filled with cheap stuff, and then didn’t we both smoke cigarettes? Yes, we had enjoyed a cigarette before our acquaintance, which is no harm whatsoever, but we overdid it. Between every kiss we had to take a puff–a kiss and a puff, and a kiss and a puff. Then the kiss was too long and the cigarette went out, and striking a match we took no time to let the sulphur burn off and sucked the poison from the burning match into our system. Heavens!

When I spotted The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub on the Internet Archive, I assumed it was the sort of cheap, salacious literature sold in ads in the back of blood-and-guts rags around the turn of the century. And if anyone did send 25 cents in silver to Ada, it was probably in hope of just such lurid accounts of lust and lechery in the bedrooms of New York hotels.

They would have been pretty disappointed. Although there’s plenty of situations that would have caused Ada’s father to reach for his rod, the closest things get to the risque is when Ada finds a welching tenant drunk on his soft with a half-dressed woman asleep next to him.

But for a reader a hundred years later, the attraction of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub is not the story but the storyteller. Could anyone but Joyce or Beckett have come up with such raw, unfiltered native craziness:

What was in that beer I drank? One good swallow–: only I took to quench my thirst, but anyhow I was paralyzed. I could not move. I produced money and sent for clam juice. The clam juice didn’t come. I produced money and sent for Dr. O’Brian. Dr. O’Brian didn’t come. I sent for the ambulance. The ambulance came and I was haled to the Harlem Dispensary, and there I was received as a helpless drunkard and imbecile and cigarette fiend. What happened to me there I shall cut out, but not long after that I was haled to Bellevue on Twenty-second Street, or Twenty-sixth, and there I was laid on the floor among a heap of misfortunates with empty stomachs, and I suffered the tortures of hell until the following day at about two o’clock in the afternoon, when the doctor came to look after our welfare.

To quote the one and only Ada Blom, Swedish runaway, tenament landlady and precursor to the fictional Molly: “Howl L. Lulua!”

You can purchase print copies of The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub from several different instaprint public domain publishers, or you can just get for free from the Internet Archive: I would advise, though, to go with the PDF version, as the rest are based on an OCR version of a poor quality copy and essentially unreadable.

The Biography of a New York Hotel Scrub, by Ada Blom
New York: Ada Blom, 1909

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin

The Wikipedia entry for Speed Lamkin quotes composer Ned Rorem’s characterization of him as “the poor man’s Truman Capote”–which is probably not how Lamkin would choose to be remembered. The comparison was unavoidable, however, at least for the first thirty-some years of his life.

Portrait of Speed Lamkin by Jean de Gaigneron (circa 1948)Born in Monroe, Louisiana, son of a wealthy businessman, Lamkin like Capote went North young–to Harvard in 1948 at the age of 16. He quickly found his way into the circles of Eastern avant-garde and gay society. As early as 1949, Tennessee Williams mentioned “Speed Lamkin, whom you may know or know of, sometimes referred to as the new Truman Capote” in a letter to a friend. He published his first novel, Tiger in the Garden, while still an undergraduate. Drawing heavily on Lamkin’s perceptions of Monroe society, the novel was, in the words of Time’s reviewer, “made up of old ingredients: miscegenation, aristocratic drunks and flowerlike ladies, languid Southern talk and fiery Southern tempers.” While there was no doubt that Lamkin’s book was informed by personal knowledge of at least a few skeletons in Louisiana closets, most reviews found the book a bit artificial: the New York Times’ reviewer said it gave the “sense of a low-powered, highly polished Hollywood product.”

This was a prescient comment. In the same letter, Williams wrote that Lamkin “wants to get a Hollywood job,” and less than a year later, Christopher Isherwood, living in Los Angeles, mentioned Lamkin for the first time in his diaries. Lamkin was the first to try to adapt Isherwood’s Berlin stories for the screen, and while he didn’t succeed in this effort, he did work as a screen writer, mostly in television for most of the 1950s.

In 1954, he published his second novel, The Easter Egg Hunt (later retitled Fast and Loose in paperback). Although labeled a Hollywood novel, the book is, to be more precise, a novel of Beverly Hills. The distinction is subtle but important. A Hollywood novel is, in some way or another, about the business of movie-making and the people involved in it.

Beverly Hills, on the other hand, while populated by many in the entertainment business, is first and foremost a town of the rich–or, as Lamkin describes it, small “wealthy city, two thirds suburb, one third resort.” The Easter Egg Hunt is more about lives lived around expensive homes, poolsides, and nightclubs than about directors, actors, and producers.

During the photographing, new people arrived. Cobina Wright’s secretary; and the Abe Abramses, who had money in Van-color; and an Egyptian princess, who had drifted to Beverly Hills in the entourage of the Queen Mother Nazli; and a blank-faced Dutchman, who owned a pepper business; and a man in pink shorts, who sold Fords; and the man who had once played Dagwood Bumstead

While many of the extravagances described in the book relates to the efforts of Clarence Culvers, a Louisiana tycoon, to make a star of his young second wife Carol, show business is never more than a presence on the periphery of the story.

The story itself is pretty thin. Lamkins’ narrator, Charley Thayer, a young writer for Time magazine from Miro (read Monroe), Louisiana, encounters Angelica O’Brien, a a childhood playmate and bright young thing, now married to Laddie Wells, a pompous would-be intellectual and assistant to a producer of “A-movie” westerns. At first the narrative seems to be leading into a triangle between Charley, Angelica, and Laddie, but then Charley, whose bumper sticker must have read, “I Brake for Bright, Shiny Objects,” becomes the confidant of Carol Culvers and the course takes a sharp turn. From there on, we follow the rocky course of Carol, who idles at unstable and regularly revs up to self-destructive, her affair with Laddie, and the ambitions and jealousies of Clarence. Although Charley hints at one point about halfway in the story that this all will climax in some violent, headlines-grabbing event, what we get at the end is more whimper than bang. Overall, I thought The Easter Egg Hunt an utter failure as a novel.

At the same time, however, I thoroughly enjoyed reading it. Lamkin might not have been an effective novelist, but he is a terrific observer. If he kept a diary during his time in Los Angeles, somebody needs to convince him to publish it. The Easter Egg Hunt is a treasure trove of descriptions of the people, places, and trappings of Beverly Hills in the early 1950s. If you read L.A. Confidential and other James Ellroy novels for the scenery, you’ll love The Easter Egg Hunt. Take, for instance, just a portion of the account of one of the Culvers’ frequent parties:

They sat drinking in sixes and eights around the tables under the marquee; and they would dance for half an hour to the bouncy music of an orchestra playing the songs of South Pacific. Then the orchestra would alternate with a rumba-mambo-tango band. People spread their fur wraps and lay down on the grass, and people had their fortunes told by a swank Beverly Hills numerologist. Two snobbish English actors arrived with Vera Velma the strip-tease queen, who wore pink dyed fur and was introduced as Mrs. T. Markoe Deering of Southampton and New York.

At two-thirty sharp the man who had played Washington in Valley Forge vomited over the buffet, and a sturgeon and three red herrings had to be taken away. Down the hill in the Japanese tea house two ensigns were having a crap game with Len Evansman, the columnist. Len Evansman wanted to know if I could change a thousand-dollar bill. At a quarter of three a dozen Hawaiian girls did the hula-hula and a dignified producer, who had an obsession for pinching young women’s behinds, got his face slapped by the ukelele player. A thin man who did rope tricks followed the hula girls. It was during the rope tricks that somebody started throwing the plates out over the hill. “Look,” cried a starlet, “flying saucers! ” Forty-five people rose from their chairs to look. Three men started throwing plates, then a woman started.

The book is rich of succinct character sketches full of efficient defamation: “George Martin was not handsome, he was not well-mannered, he was not entertaining in the least; in fact, every remark he made, every opinion uttered, was something stupid and inane; yet when George Martin entered a room, the eyes of every woman in it went to him.” Or the studio founder who “lived on in a Norman castle on Doheny with trained nurses to tend his artificial bowels.”

Although Lamkin’s alter ego Charley has a one-night stand with Angelica, his role and perspective seems more gay than straight. He becomes the confidant of both Angelica and Carol without stirring up much in the way of a jealous reaction from either husband. He spends much of his time in the company of an English novelist named Sebastian Saunders, who is clearly a fictionalized Christopher Isherwood (to whom the novel is dedicated): “His court consisted of two sailors in uniform, a trim little middle-aged Englishman, to whom he addressed most of his remarks, and a boy who could not have been over fifteen years old.” I don’t know if Lamkin was trying to camouflage his homosexuality or just using the language of his time, but there are regular references to gays that are likely to offend today: “Gladys Hendrix typified the sort of well-off older woman who goes around with swish young men; and the Titson twins with their talk of ‘stunning’ this and ‘smart’ that were horribly, horribly swish.” Charley and Angelica go to a “pansy bar”; the Culvers’ personal secretary, “a tall, stout, broad-shouldered woman with the complexion of a steaming red crab” is known as “Butch” Murphy.

The Easter Egg Hunt did well enough to be reissued as a lurid-covered paperback, but got reviews that consistently riffed on the theme of “imitation F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Lamkin abandoned the novel after this, but he did get one play, “Comes a Day,” produced on Broadway starring George C. Scott, in 1958. He returned to Monroe in the early 1960s and appears to have devoted his energies towards collecting. The New Orleans Museum of Art featured a number of items from his collection of furniture, paintings, vases, and other items in the exhibition, “A Taste for Excellence,” several years ago.

Although hardback and paperback editions of The Easter Egg Hunt are available, you can find copies of the book in various electronic formats for free: The Easter Egg at the Internet Archive.

The Easter Egg Hunt, by Speed Lamkin
New York City: Houghton Mifflin, 1954

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Poole

I’ll start 2011 with a post on the funniest book I’ve read in at least the last ten years.

I don’t recall how I first came across Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians while browsing through the Internet Archive. I downloaded the text at least two years ago and kept meaning to read it, but it was only when I bought a Nook that I finally did. I have to say that the experience did strain my marriage for a few weeks as my wife had to put up with me bursting out laughing each night as I clicked through the book in bed beside her.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is an account of two visits by one Paul Pry, a gentleman resident of London, to the town of Little Pedlington, population 2,972, somewhere around 1835. Pry, who has “been everywhere, seen everything, heard everything, and tasted of everything,” has been wondering where to escape from London’s “unendurable” summer when a parcel of books arrives from his bookseller. Sorting through it, he lays aside “Denham’s Travels in Africa,” Humboldt’s in South America, and ” Parry’s Voyages” to peruse a slender just-published volume, “The Stranger’s Guide through Little Pedlington,” by Felix Hoppy, Esq., M.C..

Although he acknowledges that such guides can be found be every provincial crossroads in England, the hyperbole of Hoppy’s book (“Hail, Pedlingtonia! Hail, thou favoured spot!/What’s good is found in thee; what’s not, is not.”) overwhelms Pry and convinces him that the town must be a “very Paradise.” So off he sets for Little Pedlington.

Or at least he tries to. It turns out there is no direct coach from London, and only a chance of finding a connection by way of Squashmire Gate. But even Squashmire Gate proves inaccessible, as the coachman drops him at an isolated hamlet called Poppleton End. “Poppleton End?” he exclaims. “Yes, sir, and has been since time out of mind,” replies the coachman with a snicker. Stuck there in a poor excuse for an inn, Pry attempts to make the best of things, but he soon finds nothing even remotely passable in the place. The locals argue over how far it is to Squashmire Gate–“thirteen good mile” … but that way is blocked, so it’s seventeen-and-a-half if you go by way of Lob’s Farm. And the only transport available is a one-horse cart–“but our horse died Friday-week, and my good man hasn’t yet been able to suit himself with another.”

Finally, he resigns himself to wait until something better comes along and asks the maid for dinner. What follows is arguably the lost template for Monty Python’s famous spam skit:

“What would you like, sir ?”

“A boiled chicken”

“We have never a chicken, sir, but would you like some eggs and bacon?”

“No. Can I have a lamb-chop?”

“No, sir, but our eggs and bacon is very nice.”

“Or a cutlet — or a steak?”

“No, sir; but we are remarkable here for our eggs and bacon.”

“Have you anything cold in your larder?”

“Not exactly, sir, but I’m sure you will admire our eggs and bacon.”

“Then what have you got?”

“Why, sir, we have got nothing but eggs and bacon.”

“Then have the goodness to give me some eggs and bacon.”

“I was sure you’d choose eggs and bacon, sir. We are so famous for it.”

Despite these obstacles, though, Pry is set on his mission of visiting Little Pedlington, particularly after hearing the maid’s endorsement: “Sir,” she said, ” all the world can’t be Lippleton; if it was, it would be much too fine a place, and too good for us poor sinners to live in.” Eventually, after hours of riding on a rickety coach through drizzle, mud, and detours, he arrives late in the evening at “Scorewell’s hotel, the Green Dragon, in High Street. Forgetting all my bygone troubles, I exultingly exclaimed, ‘And here I am in Little Pedlington!'”

Though he resolves to keep a faithful journal of his visit, within the first minutes of his first morning in town, it becomes apparent that Pry’s expectations are not going to bend to the mediocre reality that is life in Little Pedlington–at least not until he has the chance to look back with some perspective upon his return to London. He has a fine breakfast at Scorewell’s. Excepting the over-cooked egg, which is replaced with an under-cooked one; the “Nanking-coloured” coffee (“One quarter ounce per quart,” the waiter proudly informs him); and the fact that the only London paper–three weeks old–is in the hands of preferred customers (“the family with the fly”). Just before setting out for his first stroll around the town, he arranges for his dinner–which becomes the forerunner of another, lesser-known Python sketch, “The Cheese Shop.”:

“Well, Mr. Scorewell, that will do for the present. I will now, guide-book in hand, pay a visit to the town; at five o’clock I will return; and since (as I perceive by the book) you have a well-supplied market …”

“The best in the whole universe, sir.”

“Well, then, you will let me have a nice little dinner; some flsh and …”

“Fish! To-day is Monday, you know, sir, and Wednesdays and Saturdays are our fish-days. Couldn’t get fish to-day in Lippleton for love or money. But I’ll tell you what, sir ; if Joe Higgins should bring any gudgeons in to-morrow, I’ll take care of ’em for you—unless, indeed, the family with the fly should want ’em.”

“A veal cutlet then, and …”

“Veal! We only kill veal in Lippleton, sir, once a week, and that’s o’ Tuesdays, But if you’d please to leave it to my cook, sir, she’ll send you up as nice a little dinner as you’d wish to sit down to.”

In the course of the next week or so, Pry meets all the illuminati of Little Pedlington. His self-appointed guide is one Jack Hobbleday, a gossiping cheapskate busybody windbag bore–although Poore manages to make this clear without ever putting it into such direct terms:

Obligingly communicated to me the fact, that he took three thick slices of bread-and-butter, one egg, and two cups of tea; adding to the interest of the information, by a minute detail of the price he paid for the several commodities, the quantities of tea and sugar he used, the time he allowed his egg to boil, and his tea to draw; and also, bv a particular description of the form and size of his teapot. Though early in the day, I experienced sensation of drowsiness, for which (having slept well at night) I could not account.

It turns out that most of the inhabitants of Little Pedlington share the same affliction. There is Major Boreall, “who, for instance, is a longer time in telling you of his ordering a dinner than it would take you to eat it.” Or Rummins, the town antiquarian, whose “pro-nun-ci-a-ti-on precise accurate even to inaccuracy, and so distinct as to be almost unintelligible — at least, to one accustomed, as I had hitherto been, to the conversation of ordinary people, who utter their words in an everyday sort of manner.” Or Colonel Dominant (an escapee from Bob and Ray’s “Webley Webster Playhouse”), who screams, “D__n your arrogance!” at virtually every syllable his meek companion Mr. Truckle utters.

Little Pedlingtonians find virtue in the utter lack of privacy in their town. When Pry informs Yawkins, the town bookseller, that London is such a big and anonymous place that half the city’s residents wouldn’t even take notice if the other half decided to shave the hair off all the dogs in town, Yawkins replies, “Then blessed be Little Pedlington!–where everybody is acquainted with everybody else’s affairs, at least as well as with his own!”

The highlight of Pry’s first visit is a soiree hosted by Rummins, during which each of the town’s intellectual elite shows off his or her best talents. The evening culminates in a song recital by Miss Cripps, Little Pedlington’s resident coloratura, Pry records in careful detail one of her songs:

Thanks to the lady’s method of singing-— a method which, I am informed, is commonly taught in Little Pedlington — I can answer for it that the following copy of her “exact and exquisite little effusion” is literally correct:

“Se turn sn en sm se,
Me o sn tarn se oo.
To nm te a te me
Pe tam ta o te poo.”

And these words, running through five verses, she articulated with as much distinctness as if she had been regularly educated as a singer for the English Opera.

If this review is beginning to seem like a bit too much of a good thing, you’ll have caught on to what is the one big drawback to Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians. The book was first published in 1836 as Paul Pry’s Journal of a Residence at Little Pedlington. Poole then reissued the book in 1839 as Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, expanding its length from just over 200 pages to over 500. The second half describes a second and last visit and includes a scene-by-scene account of the theatrical spectacle, “The Hatchet of Horror, or The Massacred Milkmaid,” as well as lengthy excerpts from the “Life and Letters of Captain Nix,” a recently-deceased resident. These include such fascinating items from Nix’s diary as:

Sept. 26.— Rose at 8— shaved— 9, brekd.” [For breakfasted.] 3, Biled beaf for dinr. and carets hot. [It adds considerably to the interest of the work that, in all cases where Nix’s MS. are consulted, his own system of orthography is adhered to. The same may be said of his peculiar mode of pronunciation whenever he is made to appear as the narrator or interlocutor. Of these the dramatic effect is thereby considerably heightened.] 6, Walkd. to Vale of Health — 10, Supper. Welsh rabbet, gin and water, then to bed.

Sept. 27.— Rose 8— -shaved— 9, brekd.— 3, biled beaf for dinr., cold — 6, walkd. to V. of H. — 10, supp., Welsh r., gin and water — 11, bed.

In many ways, Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in a class with Mark Twain’s travel books, particularly The Innocents Abroad, which are studded with wonderful comic set-pieces and pastiches but begin to bog down from sheer length after page 400. Still, the quality and wealth of the set-pieces and pastiches in Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is astonishing and kept me richly amused for over two weeks.

During his life, John Poole was best known as a comic dramatist–experience that certainly informs his account of “The Hatchet of Horror.” Although Little Pedlington was well known enough in its time to earn an entry (“The village of quackery and cant, humbug, and egotism, wherever that locality is.”) in Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, Poole himself fell on hard times in his later years, and was supported financially by Charles Dickens, who considered him an inspiration.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians is in print from a number of publishers specializing in reprinting open source texts, skip the middlemen and get the text yourself, either from the Internet Archive (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians) or Google Books (Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians). Just make sure to give fair warning to whoever you’ll be reading in bed with.

Little Pedlington and the Pedlingtonians, by John Pool
London: Henry Colburn, 1839