Endless River, by Felix Riesenberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Integrated book marker ribbon from 'Endless River'

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

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

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

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

Around the World with Reader Recommendations

I’ve received a number of neglected book recommendations over the last month, with writers and subjects ranging from Alaska to turn-of-the-[20th] Century Chicago to Greece during World War Two to Australia, along with a long-out-of-print business book with a small but enthusiastic following.

Son of the Smoky Sea, by Simeon Oliver

A reader just going by the nickname Plesah offers suggestions from far corners of the Pacific. The first is the 1943 autobiography of a young Alaskan, half Aleut, half Norwegian, who was abandoned after his mother’s death and sent to a Methodist mission in Unalaska. He did well enough to be accepted into a pre-med program at Northwestern, but dropped that in favor of a music scholarship. That he dropped, too, and returned to Alaska as an assistant on an anthropological expedition. Disappointed in his lack of connections to the native people (he had forgotten what little Aleut he had known), he returned to the States, but hooked up with a ghost writer, Alden Hatch, and released (as “Nutchuk,” his Aleut name), Son of the Smoky Sea. The book clearly sold well, as there are plenty of used copies still available. Plesah mentions a sequel, Return to the Smoky Sea, but I suspect this is a mistake–the same one made by the Anchorage Daily News reporter in his 1976 interview with Oliver, as there is no record anywhere of this title. From the interview, however, you can tell that Oliver, who calls himself “a jackass of all trades’ was quite the storyteller, whether or not he was always telling the truth.

The Web of Life, by Robert Herrick

Lew Wheaton writes to propose this novel about his home, Chicago, around the time of the 1893 World’s Fair. “If you’re a lover of big, messy, noisy city novels, as you’ve said you are, then check this one out.” If Herrick is remembered at all these days, it’s as a regionalist, but he probably deserves a closer look. Erik Larson thought enough of the novel to include a number of quotes from it in his best-seller, The Devil in the White City. At the time of its first publication, the New York Time complained that, “He might have told his story with more buoyancy of manner and with more variety of tone. His humor, when it is in evidence at all, seems dry.” But it also noted that, “Quite the best feature of Mr. Herrick’s novel is its elaborate and varied study of Chicago in and out of doors, its commercial strife, its fashionable social routine, its sordidness and vulgarity, its enterprises, its youthful vitality.” Which does second Lew’s assessment that it’s worth a look by any fan of city novels–and Chicago certainly has been the subject of some of the best.
Herrick’s book is available from dozens of on-demand publishers, but don’t bother with them and get it direct from the Internet Archive.

Tycho Brahe’s Path to God, by Max Brod

Bengt Broström, who has provided some great recommendations before, suggests the works of Max Brod, who is far better remembered as Franz Kafka’s literary executor than as a writer himself:

He wrote 25 novels, essays and short stories. He is not much translated into English. His best known novel Tycho Brahes Weg zu Gott, 1916 was translated as Tycho Brahes path to God, 1928 and has been reissued 2007.

His best book is “Das grosse Wagnis”, 1919 a subtle dystopian novel.

His first novel “Schloss Nornepygge”, 1908 is one of the great novels of Decadence. It is not translated into English but new editions in German have appeared between 2009 and 2012.

As Broström notes, Tycho Brahe’s Path to God was reissued in 2007, by Northwestern University Press. This edition included an introduction by his contemporary, the ever-less-neglected Stefan Zweig. At the time the historical novel was first published, no less than Albert Einstein was moved to write of it, “I’ve read the book with great interest. It is without a doubt interestingly written by a man who knows the cliffs of the human soul.”

Unfortunately for Brod’s reputation in the U. S., neither of the other two titles mentioned have ever been translated and published here. Several of his more-forgettable novels were, however: The Master, a historical novel about the life of Jesus; and Unambo, which Kirkus Reviews summed up as, “An involved and wordy fable which tangles with the problem of man’s dual nature, symbolized in this case by the struggle of an Israeli intellectual to achieve a peaceful neutrality of soul through a diabolical time-space machine.”

When the Tree Sings, by Stratis Haviarias

Kris Kincaid writes, “Stratis Haviaras was (is?) [Was: viz.–Ed.] a curator at Harvard library and a poet who wrote two stunning novels – in English – around WWII Greece from a child’s-eye view that saw very good reviews and quickly disappeared. The first, When the Tree Sings, is set during the German occupation. It’s impressionistic and poetic and has less of a narrative, with descriptions of the daily horrors of the time written in a kind of dreamy, detached prose:

An old man began to dig with teeth and nails for roots, moaning weakly from hunger.
Then two kids were blown to pieces by a land mine as they tried to disarm it and use the dynamite cakes to kill fish in the bay. I saw their little arms in smoking sleeves hung from a fig tree, trembling – so simple.
And I saw a woman in black overcome by crows, and a younger woman crawl to the roadside, dragging her entrails over the dust.

“It got a number of glowing reviews (‘This first novel…is one of the most power, uncompromising, exquisitely written and imaginatively conceived of any that I have read.’ – Time Out, etc) in 1979, but is certainly neglected now. Same fate for its follow-up in 1986, Haviaras’ second and last novel, The Heroic Age, follows a band of orphan kids who’ve spent much of the war living in the mountains, as they’re rounded up and put in work camps after the war. This one has more of a narrative and is, I think, even better than Haviaras’ first novel, but you really can’t go wrong with either of these, both of which got paperback printings from major presses (Picador and Penguin) and so should be fairly easy to dig up.”

Both novels are out of print but available on Amazon for as little as one cent.

A Fortunate Life. by Albert Facey

This should be qualified as a regionally-neglected book, as it’s considered a classic in Australia, selling nearly a million copies, has its own Wikipedia entry, and has never been out of print there since first published in 1981. Facey, who enlisted in 1914, was seriously wounded at Gallipoli. Despite suffering from the effects of his injuries and facing hardships through most of his working life, Facey had a remarkable resilience of spirit that led him, in his mid-eighties, to collect his notes and diaries and assemble them into this book, which became an instant best-seller in Australia upon its publication. Sadly, Facey died less than a year later, but the book continues to inspire readers. Although out of print in the U. S. since its first publication, it’s collected over thirty five-star reviews on Amazon.

Moving Mountains (Or The Art of Letting Others See Things Your Way), by Henry Boettinger

“An out-of-print classic. definitely one for your site,” writes Geoffrey Morton-Haworth. First published in 1969 and reprinted several times since then, this might be the earliest guide to making presentations (something we all now are subjected to at least several times each week, thanks to the success of Microsoft Powerpoint). Boettinger was a senior executive at AT&T in the days when it was still home to Bell Labs, “The Idea Factory, ” Moving Mountains may no longer be technologically up to date (it recommends viewfoils as the best medium), but it’s still psychologically relevant. Its word-of-mouth reputation as one of the best texts ever written on the subject has managed to drive the price for used copies as high as $300–although you can easily find some for $16-25.

As always, your recommendations are most welcome–aside from their negative effects on my wallet and storage space!

Suicides, from Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg

Always there is death. In those early St Mary’s days death was close, for Bellevue had the morgue, and out of morbidness some of us went there to see rows of white-sheeted stillness on the slabs–the lost and forgotten corpses of a city that holds so much of life and happiness and hope. The wharves by the East River attract those drifting near the edge. Always we had the dinghy, a black-painted, four-oared boat, swung out in its davits at the port fore rigging. The call to launch was answered with alacrity. It would splash into the slip and stroke away toward the floundering of the desperate. Many would-be suicides were snatched from the cold river by the boys on the schoolship. I took part in a few of these rescues, the saved sometimes cursing us until hot coffee and a slab of corned beef brought them to their senses. Jumping from piers seems to be one of the reactions of the city. As buildings grew higher, jumping from windows and splattering on the hard cement became a ghastly fact. Not long ago, in the storm center of the depression, I had a man drop close to me on Forty-fifth Street. He landed with a thud and lay still. There was no human boat capable of saving him once he had started down; screams, terrorizing cries clattered about and echoed between the high walls of adjoining office buildings, but these came from women, spectators in opposite cubicles. The falling man was silent. A policeman pulled a tarpaulin from a truck and threw it over the inert body. Two young women who had been closer than I were carried into a near-by drugstore; they had fainted.

The Man Who Carved Women from Wood, by Max White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Living Again" by Felix RiesenbergI’ve stocked my nightstand with a selection of books by Felix Riesenberg, whose first novel, P. A. L., I wrote about several months ago. Riesenberg was a professional merchant seaman and civil engineer who took up writing somewhere in his thirties and went on to publish about a half dozen novels and an equal number of non-fiction books before his death in 1939. One might compare him to Joseph Conrad, who also switched from sea captain to writer, but Riesenberg is certainly not in Conrad’s class when it comes to fiction.

Still, I’m intrigued by what drove Riesenberg to make such a dramatic shift in occupations in middle age, and particularly by the fact that, as P. A. L. demonstrates, he took considerable risks in his choice of subjects and approach. Although the majority of his books deal with life and work at sea, none of them seems to follow a predictable path. Riesenberg have not have had the mastery to be fully successful in his artistic ambitions, but he certainly didn’t lack the courage to take risks.

As Riesenberg’s 1937 autobiography, Living Again: An Autobiography, shows, risk taking was ingrained in his character. While still a teenager, he signed into merchant marine service, sailing around Cape Horn in a six-master and working his way up through the ranks, attaining his chief mate license and, later, his chief engineer and master licenses.

Riesenberg served on a wide variety of ships, from schooners to freighters to first-class Atlantic liners. His travels took him from the Far East to the Mediterranean and all over the Atlantic. But even these experiences weren’t enough for him, and in 1905, at the age of 26, he read an article about an expedition being organized by an American journalist, Walter Wellman, to reach the North Pole by dirigible. “The scheme was crazy enough to seem workable,” Riesenberg writes. He paid a call on Wellman, who happened to be in Chicago at the same time as Riesenberg was taking leave at home, and a few days later, received a telegram telling him to report to Tromso, Norway to join the expedition as its navigator.

Walter Wellman's airship, "America"The expedition’s equipment loaded down four schooners, which sailed to Dane’s Island, near Spitsbergen. A base camp was built, including a massive hangar for the dirigible, but things fell behind schedule, the airship’s engines failed spectacularly when tested, and Riesenberg and two other men were left to spend the winter alone while the rest of the team returned to Norway. The next summer, the dirigible was finally completed and Wellman, Riesenberg and another man set off for the North Pole.

Within a few hours, though, they encountered powerful head winds and soon had to make an emergency landing on a glacier. A rescue party located them the next day. Riesenberg departed not long after they made it back to the base camp. “I returned, not a hero, not a bit the wiser–for it took years of contemplation before I was able to even bear the thought of setting down the circumstances of my disappointment.”

Back in New York, he enrolled in the civil engineering program at Columbia University after an uncle offered to help with tuition. He married soon after graduating, and the adventurer soon found himself scraping to stay afloat: “After marriage, things happened to me. I tried to save but could not manage it. Unexpected jobs, royalties and windfalls came to me often in the final minutes before the crack of disaster.” He worked on the construction of massive pipelines bringing water to the city. He worked for the Parks department until kicked out of the job with a change of administrations. He worked as a building inspector, which proved one of his more educational jobs:

Violations, reported by neighbors, policemen, and what not, consisted of fire escapes that were rusting apart, of fire doors unhinged and inoperative, or air shafts too small, of drains leaking, of the many things that can be wrong with any ramshackle structure. The job took me into places nothing else could have opened; no novelist could find a better entree to the steaming and often stinking heart of the bloated, untidy, but exciting city.

Then, in 1917, the sea called him again, and he was asked to take command of the U. S. S. Newport, the floating campus of the New York Nautical School. Riesenberg was both ship captain and college dean. He reveled in the glories of the ship, a sparkling white three-master, one of the last sailing ships built for the U. S. Navy. While the war was going on, the ship was confined to Long Island Sound, but after the Armistice, he was able to take it on a long cruise down to the Caribbean.
A portrait of Felix Riesenberg as Superintendent of the New York Nautical School
Riesenberg left the command in 1919, but returned four years later for another cruise. This time, he took the students on a voyage of thousands of miles, all the way from England to the Canary Islands and the Bahamas. Along the way, they encountered a massive storm that nearly capsized the ship. You can read an account of the cruise by one of the students, A. A. Bombe, online at http://www.sunymaritime.edu/stephenblucelibrary/pdfs/1923%20cruise%20uss%20newport.pdf.

In between and after, he kept moving from job to job–a year as chief engineer for the construction of the Columbia Presbyterian Hospital; somewhat longer editing the Bulletin of the American Bureau of Shipping; and, increasingly, stories and articles for the likes of The Saturday Evening Post. Riesenberg spares little space for his own writing. One novel he dismisses in a sentence as “a rotal flop, a complete and thorough failure.” His 1927 novel, East Side, West Side, though, was a hit and made into a film, one of the last big-budget silents, which earned him a time in Hollywood as a studio writer.

“Felix, why don’t you write a book about your life?” one of his editors asked him in 1935. So Riesenberg packed up his journals and diaries and headed to a small house on the beach near Pensacola. “After seven months on the edge of a warm and reminiscent sea,” however, “the truth came upon me with a feeling of dread–I was a stranger to myself.” Though he managed to set down the account that appears in this book, he confesses at the start that, “I look upon these things as strange occurrences, common, no doubt, to all of us.”

Despite the many colorful episodes and Riesenberg’s strong and direct prose style, however, that odd sense of detachment prevades Living Again and leaves it, in the end, a less than satisfying autobiography. The reader cannot help but get the sense that Riesenberg’s most intense experiences occurred during his early years at sea, and that most of what happened thereafter seemed anticlimactic.

Still, I will carry on with my navigation through Riesenberg’s novels. I just started Endless River, which Robert Leavitt described as, “a torrent that pours through a book—the torrent of Mr. Riesenberg’s thought and comment on life…. It swirls and eddies, formlessly; it gnaws at its restraining backs; it throws up a spray that gleams, now and then, with an unholy phosphorescence. And it tumbles along a burden of flotsam that is the most curiously assorted ever a river bore.” Clearly another example of Felix Riesenberg’s willingness to take risks.

Living Again: An Autobiography, by Felix Riesenberg
Garden City, New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc., 1937

In Search of In Search of Myself, by Hans Natonek

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

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

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

Louis Adamic, in the Saturday Review:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Search of Myself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And that was that,” R. L. concludes.

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

Other Reviews

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

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

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

Burton Rascoe on Neglected Books, from The American Mercury, August 1940

Source: http://www.unz.org/Pub/AmMercury-1940aug-00495

California conservative and entrepeneur Ron Unz has set up a website, unz.org, with PDF versions of articles from over 100 American periodicals from the 20th century, ranging from The Abolitionist, a mimeographed newsheet from the Rutgers Libertarian Alliance, to Yank, the U. S. Army’s magazine from World War Two. Of particular interest to book fans are complete records of magazines such as The American Mercury, The Literary Digest, and The Saturday Review, which are rich in reviews, articles and ads about books from the past. Although the site’s interface is very HTML 1.0-ish and pages can only be downloaded and printed individually, a stroll through almost any issue will produce at least one long-forgotten title worth investigating.

One article that caught my eye, naturally, was “Neglected Books,” written by Burton Rascoe, an influential editor and critic of the first half of the century, published in the August 1940 issue of H. L. Mencken’s magazine, The American Mercury. Rascoe’s intention was “to call attention to a few books published within the last eighteen months which are literary works of outstanding merit and deserving of a wide and appreciative audience, but which, because of the many imponderables of book publishing, not only failed to catch on with the wide reading public but reached such a small number of book buyers, in some instances, as to be downright calamities to both author and publisher.” In other words, these are books that went straight from press to neglect without passing “Go.”

Of the eight titles discussed, half are back in print now. The Rockville, Maryland-based Wildside Press, which has brought almost all of James Branch Cabell’s books, including Hamlet Had an Uncle, back into circulation. Thanks to the strong support of university presses for the works of regional writer of the past, the novels of James Still, including River Of Earth, are available from the University Press of Kentucky . As is E. C. Abbott’s cattle-drive memoir, We Pointed Them North, which the University of Oklahoma Press has kept in print since 1976. And the University of Ohio’s Swallow Press offers not only Frank Waters’ The Dust Within the Rock but twenty others, including his best-known novel, The Man Who Killed The Deer.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "Hamlet Had an Uncle"

Hamlet Had an Uncle, by James Branch Cabell

“Urbane, brilliant and beautiful treatment of the Hamlet legend, in which Cabell adheres more closely to the earliest historical account, the Danish history of Saxo-Grammaticus, than did Shakespeare. As with all of Cabell’s novels, it is an analogue of happenings in our own time–in this instance, it is an analogue of the rise of Hitler, Stalin and Mussolini.”

Sun and Storm, by Unto Seppänen

“A Finnish peer of Knut Hamsun’s Nobel Prize-winning novel, Growth of the Soil. One of the most powerful, realistic novels in modern literature.” Kirkus Reviews described it as a historical novel that recounts “the emergence of Finland from vassal statehood to independence, the growth of the peasantry to power” as experienced by one family. In The Saturday Review, Agnes Rothery–a prolific travel writer of the time–wrote, “This is a book of exceptional merit. It possesses every ingredient required to make a first-class novel: a romantic setting of a remote and little known country, a powerful theme of an ambition peasant dominating successive generations of the family he founded, and a plot which is concerned with the century-long struggle of Finland against her tyrant, Russia.” Seppänen’s work has been so utterly forgotten that he doesn’t even rate a Wikipedia listing in any language but his own.

River Of Earth, by James Still

“This young novelist has such a mature and original style, such an acute sense of character and effective dialogue that he bids fair to become one of our most widely read and highly praised creators of imaginative literature.” Still, who lived most of his life in a cabin in the hills of eastern Kentucky in which this and his other books were set. A documentary on the book and Still’s life produced by Kentucky Educational Television can be viewed online at http://www.ket.org/cgi-bin/cheetah/watch_video.pl?nola=KJSRE_000000&template=_itv. You can also read an appreciative essay on the book, written by Jerry Salyer in 2009, on the Front Porch Republic website.

Cover of first U. S. edition of "The Last Hunt"

The Last Hunt, by Maurice Genevoix

“This is a delicately beautiful woodland story of the understanding and affection between a huntsman and a deer, which somehow makes the reader recall W. H. Hudson, Felix Salten and the legends of St. Francis of Assisi.” Rascoe also compares it to the works of a frequent American Mercury contributor, Alan Devoe. Devoe published a half-dozen or so books on animals, birding, and country life and is remembered now by the Alan Devoe Bird Club of Columbia County, New York.

We Pointed Them North: Recollections of a Cowpuncher, by E. C. Abbott and Helen Huntington Smith

“The recollections of ‘Teddy Blue’ Abbott, a Texas and Montana cowpuncher of the seventies and eighties, who rode here up the Long Trail four times, knew Buffalo Bill and Calamity Jane, gamblers, cattle thieves, Indians, dead-shots, man-hunting marshals, and, above all, the plains and mountains, peoples and customs, songs and legends of the country. It is inconceivable that this book shouldn’t delight the millions who read cowboy fiction and love the Hollywood ‘horse-operas’….”

O Canaan!, by Waters E. Turpin

“Here is the intensely moving and significant story of the migration North of a group of Negro farm-hands in response to the industrial demand for labor in 1916 (a year in which rains and the boll weevil devastated the cotton crop of the South), and of their several maladjustments to the new environment, a new way of living, a new kind of social antagonism and, worse perhaps, a sudden (if not long-lived) acquaintance with wealth in the form of daily wages in excess of what they would earn in a month in the South.” O Canaan! is now so rare that Amazon has no listings and the only copy I could find available for sale online has a price tag of $295.

Dust Within the Rock, by Frank Waters

“The third volume of a notable trilogy of three generations in the mining regions of Cripple Creek and during the rise of Denver and Colorado Springs; but a novel complete in itself.” A more skeptical critic, writing for Kirkus Reviews, concluded that, “As a picture of a family gone to seed, keeping the surface veneer of aristocracy, and of March Cable, symbolizing his generation as a sort of rebirth of the frontier spirit, it does not quite come off.” The preceding novels in the trilogy are Wild Earth’s Nobility and Below Grass Roots. In 1971, Waters compiled the novels into a single volume, Pikes Peak: A Mining Saga.

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Jubal Troop"

Jubal Troop, by Paul Wellman

“A thrilling, well-documented and deeply felt novel of the trans-Mississippi immigration into Texas and Oklahoma when the prairies were first attracting settlers and the cattle industry of the plains was just developing.” Ironically, of all these books, Jubal Troop fared the best for its first thirty-some years, staying in print through four or five paperback editions, and being made into a film (Jubal) starring Glenn Ford, Ernest Borgnine and a remarkable supporting cast (Rod Steiger, Charles Bronson, Jack Elam, Felicia Farr). The director, Delmer Daves, recast the story into a Western version of “Othello”–which earned it a reputation as one of the first “adult” Westerns.

“In each case no doubt,” Rascoe concludes after a consideration of the rationale behind the failure of Cabell’s novel, “there are good and plausible explanations for undeserved neglect. Which is no consolation to author and publisher. Worse than that, the neglect is a real loss to the reading public.”

Amen, brother!

Gems from the Internet Archives, courtesy of the University of Florida

From time to time, I go panning in the ever-widening stream of electronic texts in the Internet Archive. It takes a certain amount of strategy, as there are probably a hundred or a thousand more statistical reports (The Fats and Oils Situation for November 1945, anyone?), court reports, NASA test reports, government reports (e.g., Annual Report Of The Archaeological Survey Of India 1924-1925), and texts in languages I’ll never learn to read (警世通言(十三) might be terrific–what could I be missing?) for every book possibly worth considering.

Sometimes, though, I manage to stumble onto a vein of high-quality material. Today’s find was a collection of several hundred books from the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s scanned and uploaded to the archive courtesy of the George A. Smathers Libraries of the University of Florida, with the help of Lyrasis and the Sloan Foundation. I’ve had to accept that I will never manage to read everything I’ve discovered so far, let alone what remains to be found, so I can only offer the following as possibilities for others to try:

Thirty Years, by John P. Marquand (1954)

Now this one I actually own and have sampled from. It’s a collection of short stories and non-fiction articles Marquand published after becoming a professional writer in the 1920s. For me, the most interesting material can be found in the middle section, “The Wars: Men and Places,” which contains both stories and articles drawing on Marquand’s experiences of serving in the Army during World War One and of traveling as a reporter to the Pacific theater during World War Two. The Smathers Libraries have also uploaded Marquand’s Melville Goodwin, U. S. A. and H. M. Pulham, Esq.–the latter, in my opinion, his best novel.

More in Sorrow, by Wolcott Gibbs (1958)

Another collection, this one from a contemporary of Marquand’s. Gibbs was a member of the New Yorker staff for thirty years, contributing more words to the magazine than any other writer during that time. As Thomas Vinciguerra, who edited Backward Ran Sentences: The Best of Wolcott Gibbs from the New Yorker put it in an article for the Weekly Standard, Gibbs “turned out trenchant fact pieces, cutting yet perceptive criticism, finely wrought short stories, and hilarious vignettes.” More in Sorrow opens with his most famous piece, “Time … Fortune … Life … Luce,” which appeared in 1936 and parodied the awkward prose style favored in Henry Luce’s magazines. Vinciguerra took his title from the line, “Backward ran sentences until reeled the mind,” which appears in the piece.

Touch of Nutmeg, and More Unlikely Stories, by John Collier (1943)

Collier keeps being rediscovered every twenty years or so. His stories combine horror, black comedy, and pure eccentricity in a way that no one, aside from Roald Dahl, has managed to equal. Many of these stories can be found in Fancies and Goodnights, which was reissued as a New York Review Classic, with an introduction by the late Ray Bradbury, back in 2003. If you’re debating buying that volume, I encourage you to try this free sampler. I warn you, though: it’s like taking just one potato chip.

The Boat, by L. P. Hartley

Hartley is sometimes described as Henry James’ closest successor–a writer of fine-grained and subtle psychological observations. His Eustace and Hilda trilogy goes in and out of print–and is back now, again thanks to the New York Review Classics. But The Boat, which deals with the experiences of an English writer forced by the outbreak of World War Two to return to rural England after years of living in Venice, was his personal favorite. One critic has called it “the nearest thing to a great novel I can discern in the post-war years.”

The Big Laugh, by John O’Hara

This was O’Hara’s big Hollywood novel, and, as with any of his novels, a big step down from his stories. It’s too long, too loud, and too melodramatic–but you can also count of plenty of great dialogue (O’Hara is one of the great dialogue writers of all time). This was good enough to be one of the last books reissued by Ecco Press before they were taken over by Harper Collins in 1999, so it can’t be all bad.

Get away from me with those Christmas gifts, and other reactions, by Sylvia Wright

From a quick glance, this collection of satiric pieces from the mid-1950s looks a bit like Erma Bombeck channelling Dorothy Parker. Kirkus Reviews described it as, “salty and astringent observations on Life’s little lunacies.” For soccer moms with a taste for dry martinis, perhaps.

Eye in the Sky, by Louis Grudin

A readable collection of pieces combining prose and poetry, recounting the life of Manhattan in the course of a winter somewhere in the 1950s. Looks pretty interesting if, like me, you’re a fan of New York books. Grudin’s style is lively and spiced with street chatter, as in this, from “Another Beggar,” where a man recalls running into a street character he can’t stand:

On Broadway in the forties, all dressed up like Monsieur in a temps perdu. Was he cherchezing on that honkytonk street, that island of ginmills for the sailor boys? What was he doing there when he popped out of the darkness as Myrtle and I turned into the wind, hurrying from the show? Still following me! (as we edged away and walked on) and hurled that parting insult.

The Armchair Esquire, Esquire’s First Sports Reader, and Esquire’s Second Sports Reader

Three anthologies taken from the pages of Esquire, which in its day was a bit like Playboy without the photo spreads–the magazine for the midcentury metrosexual. The first is a best-of sampler from the 1930s through the 1950s; the second is a collection of non-fiction sports articles; and the third a collection of short stories on sporting themes. Lots of well-known names such as James T. Farrell, Steinbeck, Bellow, Waugh, Algren. The first includes Arthur Miller’s story, “The Misfits,” which was later made into a movie starring Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable that is probably better remembered for its making than its merits.

A Name for Evil, The Velvet Horn, and A Novel, A Novella and Four Stories, by Andrew Lytle

Lytle was one of the Southern Agrarians, a group of writers that included Robert Penn Warren and Allen Tate. They fought against the prevailing prejudices that stereotyped the South as a place of backwardness and cultural stagnation. The Velvet Horn was nominated for the National Book Award in 1957 and is considered his best novel. It’s out of print now, even though several others he wrote are still available in J. S. Sanders’ Southern Classic Series.

The Sin of the Prophet, by Truman Nelson

According to the Kirkus Review, this novel is, “A handsomely panoplied, fictionalized reconstruction of one of the most sensational fugitive slave trials in which the Massachusetts Abolitionists were involved before the Civil War, and a full-blooded, shade-more-than-life-size portrait of the thunderous Boston clergyman, Theodore Parker.” Nelson was a life-long liberal advocate whose books often dealt with the issue of race in American history. A later novel, The Old Man: John Brown at Harper’s Ferry, was reissued a few years ago by Haymarket Press.

The Fly and the Fly-Bottle, by Ved Mehta (1962)

A collection of pieces–also from a long-time New Yorker contributor–about contemporary (as in 1962) British intellectuals. I must confess that I read this years ago, when I was on a Wittgenstein streak inspired by Ray Monk’s superb biography, Ludwig Wittgenstein: The Duty of Genius. (I must digress for a moment to quote a line from Monk’s book that I often think sums up my own predicament. Discussing an acquaintance named Barry Pink, Wittgenstein remarked, “Pink wants to sit on six stools at one, but he only has one arse”). The Fly and the Fly-Bottle takes its title from a statement in Wittgenstein’s Philosophical Investigations: “What is your aim in Philosophy?” “To show the fly the way out of the fly-bottle.” I found the book–as well as a succeeding collection, The New Theologian (1965), fascinating, but I suspect it may sit in a disrespected no-man’s land–neither a work of philosopher nor a purely entertaining collection of profiles. But if you’re the type who enjoys TED talks, I’d give it a try.

Hour, by Bernard de Voto

This short book, a light-hearted review of the place of alcohol in American history and in any civilized life, was recently reissued with an added subtitle as The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto with a preface by Daniel Handler (AKA Lemony Snicket).

Lilly’s Story, by Ethel Wilson

  • Educated in seething back alleys

  • Abandoned by worthless parents

  • Waitress by day and lost woman by night

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay

Cover of 1968 reissue of "Personal Pleasures"
Forty-some years before Ian Dury recorded his shopping-list song, “Reasons to be Cheerful, Part 3,”, listing fifty-some sources of everyday delights–from “some of Buddy Holly” to “saying ‘Okey-dokey'”–Rose Macaulay came up with her own list. Roughly equal in number, but a little longer (well, at 395 pages, quite a bit longer) in explication, Personal Pleasures is, like Dury’s tune, a wonderful reason to be cheerful on its own.

Just a glance at the table of contents will prove it: “Arm-Chair” is the third entry, followed two later by “Bakery in the Night,” and two more by “Bed,” which is further broken down into “1. Getting into it” and “2. Not getting out of it.”

Now this is a woman who had her priorities straight.

“The great and recurrent question about Abroad is, is it worth the trouble of getting there?” she observes at the start of the first piece in the book. “Do tickets, passports, money, traveller’s cheques, packing, reservations, boat trains, inns, crouch and snarl before you like those surly dragons that guard enchanted lands?” To which today’s traveler can add, “Security checks, airline seats, airline food, and featherweight plastic cups instead of proper glasses in the hotel bathroom.”

Dame (Emilie) Rose Macaulay, copy by Elliott & Fry,  - NPG  - © National Portrait Gallery, LondonOf course, Macaulay answers. All it take, she–a fine product of a Victorian childhood–advises, is “A little firmness, a nice mingling of industry, negligence and guile.”

Some of the pleasures are very much of a particular time and place. “Candlemas” and “Turtles in Hyde Park” may be a bit too dated to register with today’s readers. And will anyone ever again list “Flying” as a pleasure? Well, to be fair, Macaulay’s flying was as the passenger in a Klemm two-seater, helmeted and goggled against the elements in an open cockpit, which is something few of us will have a chance to experience but most would agree would have been a thrill. “Driving a Car” was also more of an adventure in the days before freeways and traffic lights.

Most of her choices, however, are timeless. If there comes a day when there is nothing to enjoy about “Eating and Drinking,” “Hot Bath,” “Listening In,” or”Taking Umbrage,” then I suspect it’ll be because books like Personal Pleasures are being hauled off the shelves and tossed onto bonfires again.

One could almost argue that Personal Pleasures is almost a textbook on how to enjoy life. Who knew that “Departure of Visitors” hid within itself a little goldmine of delight?

The easy chair spreads wide arms of welcome; the sofa stretches, guest-free; the books gleam, brown and golden, buff and blue and maroon, from their shelves; they may strew the floor, the chairs, the couch, once more, lying ready to the hand. “I am afraid the room is rather littered….” The echo of the foolish words lingers on the air, is brushed away, dies forgotten, the air closes behind it. A heavy volume is heaved from its shelf to the sofa. Silence drops like falling blossoms over the recovered kingdom from which pretenders have taken their leave.

Personal Pleasures has been in and out of print several times over the decades. It is currently out of print, but Bloomsbury Publishing will be releasing a Kindle edition this month. And it’s certainly one book worth having just the touch of a button away, as you’re more likely to dip into it from time to time than to read it straight from cover to cover–which would be a bit like eating nothing but cake for a week.

And as a good child of Victoria, Macaulay is quick to caution that all pleasures exist only when there is something against which they can be measured:

But how true it is that every pleasure has also its reverse side, in brief, its pain. Or, if not wholly true, how nearly so. Therefore, I have added to most of my pleasures the little flavour of bitterness, the flaw in their perfection, the canker in the damask, the worm at the root, the fear of loss, or of satiety, the fearful risks involved in their very existence, which tang their sweetness, and mind us of their mortality and of our own, and that nothing in this world is perfect.

Or, to paraphrase Mary Poppins: a spoonful of medicine helps the sugar go down.

Macaulay wrote most of these essays as she was assembling The Minor Pleasures of Life, a compilation of poems, essays, and assorted bits of prose by other writers on many of the same pleasures and more. Quite a bit more, in fact, over 300 pages more. Most of the pieces are less than a page long, which makes Minor Pleasures a perfect bathroom book, if such things have any appeal for you. And no matter where you happen to keep your copy, it’s nice to know you can dip into it and find little gems like Henry More’s remarks on the pleasure of having “A Coach to One’s Self”:

I hired a whole Coache to my selfe which cost me, but it was the best bestowed money . . . that ever I layd out, for the ayre being cool and fresh, and the coach to be opened before as well as on the sydes, I quaff’ d off whole coachfulls of fresh ayr, without the pollution or the interruption of the talk of any person.

And, if you prefer the electronic version, you can find Minor Pleasures available for free downloading at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/minorpleasuresof029963mbp.

Personal Pleasures, by Rose Macaulay
London: The Macmillan Company, 1936

Joseph Weiner recommends Mary Lee Settle’s “O Beulah Land” Quintet

Reader Joseph Weiner writes to recommend Mary Lee Settle’s five-novel series, “O Beulah Land,” which covered the roots, history, and lives of some families in West Virginia. “She’s long been a very under-appreciated writer,” he comments–which is certainly true.

Mary Lee Settle, 2003Settle had a pretty remarkable life before she took up writing: born and raised in West Virginia coal-mining country, she worked as a model and actress, and even auditioned for the role of Scarlett O’Hara. She married an Englishman, bore a child, and, when World War Two broke out, joined the Royal Women’s Auxiliary Air Force–in part as a way out of the marriage. It was an experience she later recounted in All the Brave Promises: Memories of Aircraft Woman 2nd Class 2146391. She was 36 before her first novel, The Love Eaters, was published.

Settle went on to write over twenty books in the course of a fifty year career; the last, Spanish Recognitions: The Road from the Past, a combination travelogue and memoir based on a trip she took to Spain when she was 82.

Cover of first U.S. edition of "O Beulah Land"Her best-known work is the “O Beulah Land” quintet–although I think it would be more accurate to call them five interconnected novels. The work had a structure that emerged slowly and somewhat haphazardly. The first book to be published–but the second book in terms of the overall story’s chronology–O Beulah Land (1955) was set in a fictional version of Charleston, West Virginia (then, of course, just part of the Virginia colony) during the American Revolution. The next year, she published Know Nothing, which eventually became the third installment of the story. Know Nothing shifted to the west of Charleston and forward in time to the 1850s, when divisions over slavery laid the roots for the decision to separate from the South and join the Union as the new state of West Virginia.

Then, in 1964, she published the last book in the trilogy: Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday.

I told you the structure emerged slowly and haphazardly.

Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was Settle’s shortest novel, and she was never happy with editorial cuts she had to accept to please Viking, her publisher. But it’s also clear that she was still coming to understand the story she wanted to tell, for nine years later, she published Prisons, which takes the story a great leap backward in time and space: from western Virginia in American Revolution to England in the time of Cromwell and the Civil War. Prisons is now considered the first book in the quintet.

Seven years later, she published The Scapegoat, which is based on the “Paint Creek Mine War,” a 1912 strike that was organized by Mother Jones. Finally, in 1982, she published The Killing Ground, which returns to Canona–her fictional Charleston–in the 1960s and 1970s. The Killing Ground is, effectively, an “author’s cut” version of Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday–and, like director’s cuts in film, much longer than the first release.

And, oh by the way, between Prisons and The Scapegoat, she also published Blood Tie, a novel set among the expat community in Turkey (where Settle lived for some years), which won the 1978 National Book Award for fiction.

Settle’s work does not really meet my own standards for a neglected book. It’s critical reputation is solid, if still marginalized. One academic study has been published–Brian C. Rosenberg’s Mary Lee Settle’s Beulah Quintet: The Price of Freedom (1991), and the series, along with most of her major works, is available from the University of South Carolina Press as the Mary Lee Settle Collection. The USC Press has also released a critical overview of her work, Understanding Mary Lee Settle, written by a novelist himself often mentioned as a neglected master: George Garrett.

I would not be fully honest, though, if I didn’t admit that I’ve never managed to get past about page 40 of any of Settle’s books, aside from All the Brave Promises. I’m not sure she was always well served by her editors. If, as Settle felt, Fight Night on a Sweet Saturday was cut back too far, there are also a few of her books that cried out for a thick blue pencil. Of Prisons, Kirkus Reviews observed that, “The book is filled with endless religious conversations revolving around freedom of conscience, all in the Puritan idiom of the middle 17th century–not exactly the most enlivening discourse in the world”–although it acknowledged that this might be a “necessarily tedious effort” –not exactly the most enthusiastic endorsement of a book, either. Reviewing The Killing Ground in the New York Times back in 1982, Aaron Latham argued that Settle should “sift out the slag and reduce her ‘Beulah Quintet’ to a single long novel.”

However, with a sum total of zero books to my name, I feel most ungracious to an author with such a large and diverse oeuvre to end with such comments. Mary Lee Settle was driving around rural Spain by herself, packing a laptop, a rich understanding of history and culture, and a burning curiosity when she was 82 years old. I hope I’ll have the same kind of moxie if I make it that far. So I will close with a few lines from her foreword to The Killing Ground: “All I knew and always have known, is that once I have asked the question ‘why?’ of an image, I cannot let it go until it blesses me. It is the way all my work has been done, and will be. Even at the end, like the annoying child within, I will keep on asking why.”

Michael Dirda on “Out of Print” books

Michael DirdaPatrick Kurp brought my attention to a posting in Michael Dirda’s column/blog on the website for The American Scholar, the magazine of Phi Beta Kappa. In “Out of Print,” posted in early August, Dirda writes, “These days I gravitate increasingly to books almost no one else has heard of, let alone is interested in, books that are odd and quirky and usually out of print.” He also remarks that, “I’ve also come to feel that if I don’t write about a book—in a review or essay—then I haven’t actually read it”–a feeling I have come to share since starting this site. I encourage any fan of lost books to check out the post: mentions over 25 different titles, most of them obscure and hard to find, a few darned near impossible to find. Personally, I’m now on permanent lookout for the novels of Claude Farrère.

Dirda–like his former Washington Post colleague Jonathan Yardley–has long been an enthusiast for odd and little-known books. You can find more than a few overlooked gems in each of his collections of essays, particularly in Readings: Essays and Literary Entertainments, first published in 2000 and still in print. But, he notes, “Most literary publications don’t publish essays—no matter how enthusiastic—about fiction or nonfiction that is out of print or otherwise unavailable.” “What can you do?,” he asks?

Well, Mr. Dirda, you have a standing offer here. The pay is poor, the audience tiny, but the karma boost is to die for.

Alexander Saxton, historian and novelist, dies at age 93

Cover of first U.S. edition of 'Grand Crossing'The New York Times yesterday published the obituary of Alexander Saxton, a radical historian and novelist. Although Saxton published a number of well-regarded works of history after earning his PhD at the age of 43, he first came to critical attention when he published his first novel, Grand Crossing, in 1943. Though only 24 at the time, Saxton had already lived a varied life. He attended Harvard and the University of Chicago, and then dropped out to take on work he felt more directly useful to the world. He got a job as the brakeman on a railroad crew and began writing a column for the Daily Worker.

Although Grand Crossing had its share of a young man’s pontifications, the book was bold, ambitious in scope, and full of energy conveyed, in part, by the title of its French translation: “Chicago-Triage.” As a fan of great big Chicago novels like The Death of the Detective, I picked it up recently and it’s been sitting in my “to read” stack. I certainly must read it now.

Alexander Saxton, 1948Saxton’s most-acclaimed novel, though, was The Great Midland, which he published in 1948. Midland is even more ambitious in its scope, covering thirty years in the lives of a man and woman deeply involved in the labor movement of the 1920s and 1930s. The University of Illinois Press reissued the book in 1997 as part of its “Radical Novel Reconsidered” series.

Saxton’s last novel, published in 1958, Bright Web in the Darkness, was somewhat shorter than the other two, and more mature in both perspective and structure. It dealt with the experiences and relationship of two women–one white, one black–who meet while training to become welders in a defense plant in World War Two. Bright Web in the Darkness was reissued in 1997 by the University of California Press as part of its excellent “California Fiction” series.

In reviewing the reissue of The Great Midland, one writer noted that, “the novel’s exposition is at times flattened out by the writer’s documentary calling.” Other critics observed that few of the characters in Grand Crossing were more than symbols or stereotypes. It may be no surprise, then, that Saxton found his natural voice more as a historian than a writer of fiction. In an email interview conducted just two years before his death, Saxton commented, “The novel claims only a brief span in human culture and may not continue to play a key role.” Still, one may fairly claim that Alexander Saxton’s three novels merit being written of and studied every bit as much as those of his better-known contemporaries such as Nelson Algren and John Dos Passos.

Events Leading Up to the Comedy, by Elliott Nugent

Cover of U.S. paperback edition of 'Events Leading Up to the Comedy'The first half of Elliott Nugent’s memoir, Events Leading Up to the Comedy, is pretty forgettable. Nugent, a classmate of James Thurber at Ohio State University, is probably best known for The Male Animal, the play he co-wrote with Thurber. The son of two professional actors, Nugent first hits the boards at the age of eight, and after his graduation from college, became an actor himself.

He soon expanded into writing, and quickly gained a hit on Broadway with Kempy, in which he co-starred with his father and sister. He married a fellow player, Norma Lee, and became a producer and director as well.

In 1929, MGM picked up an option to use him in their movies, and his first starring role was in “Wise Girls,” the film version of Kempy. Then, starting with “The Mouthpiece” in 1932, he became a film director as well. He went on to play in over twenty movies and direct over thirty–few of them much remembered today, however.
Elliott Nugent, 1947
Despite its rich potential for anecdotes, though, Nugent relates his story in an uninspired, “this happened, and then this happened” manner that would have led me to set the book aside after a few chapters had there not been a promise of something remarkable to come.

That something is an account of his battle with an illness he never actually labels, but which has all the signs of manic depression. Starting in the mid-1940s, Nugent’s pace of activities reached a frenzy. At one point, he watched in make-up the opening act of a play he was producing, then cut across the alley and took his first entrance in another play he was performing in. Aggravated by too much drinking and too little sleep, his few reserves of patience and perspective were exhausted and he began acting erratically.

He would go for days on end from work to parties to spur-of-the-moment trips, spending wildly, accosting strangers, and launching into angry tirades against long-standing friends. Then, days later, he found himself toying with the idea of suicide:

I scribbled a note to Norma, shoved it deep in a trouser pocket, got in my car, and drove to the Roosevelt Hotel. I remembered a certain fire escape on the tenth floor and in the back of the building, near the room my father used to occupy.

I checked my hat and coat downstairs, then rode up in the elevator, nodding to the operator as if I were one of the guests in the hotel. I pulled open the hall door to the fire-escape door, went outside, and closed it, then peered over the railing to the alley ten stories below. Instead of climbing the railing, I lighted a cigarette and sat on the railing, experimentally teetering a bit. In another moment, I might have toppled over backward, but the door opened and a stranger emerged. He gave me a curious look.

“It’s getting colder,” I said casually. “I don’t think I’ll stay out here very long.”

I offered the man a cigarette, bu he refused and went inside. I imagined that he could see me through the Venetian blinds of my father’s old room. Abruptly I rose and went downstairs, almost without thinking or making any decision.

Nugent’s behavior reached a point where his wife resorted to having him committed to a Connecticut mental hospital known as the Institute of the Living. There, he was subjected to most the known treatments of the day short of electric shock: drugs, wrapping in cold towels, spending nights in tepid baths, and insulin shock. The latter finally brought him to a level of self-control that convinced his wife and psychiatrist to release him.

Within months, however, he was back on a high. This time, he headed off on a cross-country tear that landed him in jails in Palm Springs and Hollywood and nearly got him drowned in riptides off Acapulco. His wife finally tracked him down after he returned to New York and checked into four different hotels under four different names–all in the course of one day. This time, he was sent to Bellevue Hospital and then a reputable facility upstate.

Nugent’s account of his bouts of manic depression reminded me very much of those of Washington Post publisher Phil Graham–as seen from the perspective of his wife, Katharine, in her memoir, Personal History. Except that Nugent survived where Graham took his life. Both men’s illness was ineptly treated, though they had access to the best care available, and endured by their bewildered family and friends.

Written in 1965, nearly twenty years after the start of Nugent’s illness, Events Leading Up to the Comedy comes to a rather abrupt end. Aside from the need to “try to forgive myself,” Nugent takes no great lesson from his experiences.

Perhaps, as a writer of light, comedic plays, Nugent lacked the darkness of imagination to really convey the terrors of his depressions. The passage above, for example, is utterly matter-of-fact–no different in tone, really, from that of the rest of the book. And so, in the end, Events Leading Up to the Comedy amounts to an interesting but not particularly moving account of mental illness.

Nugent, whose stage and film career ended by the late 1950s, wrote one other book after this memoir. Of Cheat and Charmer tells of the end of a Hollywood film director on a bout of drinking and fighting and womanizing that must draw heavily on Nugent’s own adventures while on manic highs. Nugent died in New York City in 1980.

Events Leading Up to the Comedy, by Elliott Nugent
New York City: Trident Press, 1965

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell

Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of 'There's One in Every Town'
Cover of 1952 Signet paperback edition of "There's One in Every Town"

“Completing engrossing on every page,” proclaims a plug by Erskine Caldwell on the cover of the Signet paperback edition of James Aswell’s short novel, There’s One in Every Town (1951). It appears beneath a James Avati cover featuring a wary brunette in a Carmen blouse (is there any other kind in a James Avati cover?). So we know we’re in Tobacco Road country, where beautiful white trash girls have a Viagra-like effect on all the men in town. Not surprisingly, as Aswell was an old college classmate of Caldwell.

In this particular instance, Jackie Vose (nee Cvasek) gets a reputation as a fast girl, but a few men believe her to be an angel at the core. One is her neighbor, who narrates the story, and the other the town’s doctor. The doctor eventually falls for her, to the town’s censure, and the two come to an end that reminded me of those Nancy Reagan fables that National Lampoon used to publish: where, no matter what sin the protagonists had committed, they always ended up run over by a runaway schoolbus.

Aswell, the son of a congressman, hailed from Baton Rouge, and published a number of novels about life down in the steamy South. Several of these also got picked up by Signet and graced with a dramatic Avati cover: The Young and the Hungry Hearted (Signet 116) and The Birds and the Bees (Signet 1121). The Midsummer Fires, however, only rated an Avon paperback release with a cartoonish cover–this despite the fact that a Natchitoches reviewer considered it to have beat out novels by Caldwell and James M. Cain as “the most nauseating book of 1948.”

Aswell died in 1955 of a cerebral hemorrhage. He was 48.

There’s One in Every Town, by James Aswell
Indianapolis: Bobbs -Merrill, 1952

P. A. L., by Felix Riesenberg

Cover of first U.S. edition of P. A. L. by Felix RiesenbergFelix Riesenberg (1879-1939) worked in the Merchant Marine, was part of two unsuccessful attempts to reach the North Pole by airship, served as a civil engineer for the state of New York, ran the New York Nautical School (now the State University of New York Maritime College), and was Chief Officer of the U. S. Shipping Board. He also wrote several books about the sea, including the manual, Standard Seamanship for the Merchant Service (1922).

And then, around the age of 44, he decided to write a novel.

P.A.L.–the resulting book–does start at sea, with the dramatic wreck of a beat-up Russian freighter carrying refugees in a storm off the coast of Washington State. The writing certainly demonstrates Riesenberg’s familiarity with the ways of ships and the sea.

By page 10, however, the sea is left behind, never to be revisited. Lieutenant Dimitri Marakoff, master of the ship at the time of its sinking, is washed ashore with other survivors, and, taken for an Englishman, listed as D. Markham. Given a new set of clothes, a few dollars, and a referral to a businessman named P. A. L. Tangerman, D. Markham is sent off to Seattle to make his way.

In Seattle, he learns that Tangerman is the entrepeneur responsible for introducing the Cudahy Vacuum Dome. Not knowing whether that’s “a mountain or a mine,” he goes to see Tangerman. A brash, cigar-puffing man clearly assured of his own ingenuity, Tangerman accepts Markham as an Englishman without a second thought, and takes an immediate liking to Markham. He offers him a job as some kind of private advisor and sends him out the door with referrals to a haberdasher and a boarding house.

Only then does Markham see the dome, being demonstrated in a downtown storefront: “an immense bulb of bright aluminum” with “the outlines of an exaggerated coal-scuttle helmet.” Copper pipes connect it to a vacuum motor: “The great invention was intended to cause hair to sprout on bald heads, by relieving the air pressure above the cranium.” In other words, an elaborate gimmick for curing baldness.

No one, however, doubts the genius of Tangerman or the certain success of the dome. And Tangerman has other enterprises: Vim Vigor V. V., a vitamin tonic; Glandula, a miracle elixir made from sheep glands; four different brands of cigars and cigarettes, all made from the same tobacco. Hailed as a titan of American industry, Tangerman works into the wee hours jotting down the secrets to success.

It’s all heady, exciting stuff for Markham and the many others in his orbit. Only no one ever sees much in the way of cash. And when the dome is accused of blowing up and injuring a customer, everyone from the haberdashers to the office furniture store start taking back their goods.

This proves a temporary set-back, though, and soon Tangerman and Markham are off to Chicago to make an even bigger splash. Tangerman founds a correspondence course school, a publishing house for cheap editions of the classics, and several magazines. One of them, Marcus and Aurelius, aims at being the most outrageous bundle of claims around–a precursor of the Weekly World News. It celebrates all of Tangerman’s gimmicks and more:

[F]ly traps, stills, liquor flavors, beer powders, trick sets, face lifting, jumping dice, depilatories, deodorizers, whirling sprays, installment diamonds, eye brighteners, nose straighteners, stammering cures, permanent curls, lip sticks, blush controllers, dimple makers, gallstone removers, self-bobbers, liquor agers, tape worm expellers, rubber underwear, hair restorers, finger print messages, sleuthing secrets, pyorrhoea, lucky rings, hypnotism, halitosis, pimple cures, lover’s secrets, pile removers, racing tips, dancing steps, etiquette, and short story courses.

“Print dirt, but don’t dose it with perfume,” is the editor’s maxim.

Tangerman buys land along Lake Michigan, builds an enormous mansion with its own power plant, buys a great yacht on which he throws wild parties with plenty of bootleg booze. He keeps surfing from one wave of speculation to another, all of based on little or no hard capital. And though he marries a sweet girl from Seattle for who Markham carries a torch, he keeps up a steady stream of mistresses, including the psychic, Countess Voluspa Balt-Zimmern.

Tangerman’s ventures also keep spiralling up from the ridiculous to the insane, culminating in a secret pact with a lunatic miner with a box full of gold in fine sand form. The miner claims to have found a huge deposit of the stuff off in some unnamed desert in the West, and Tangerman and all his fellow speculators become drunk on the possibilities of the world’s greatest gold find.

As one might expect, the bubble eventually pops, and with devastating–and in Tangerman’s case, fatal–results.

Felix Riesenberg, 1936 - Photo by Arnold Genthe courtesy of the Library of Congress
P.A.L. is reminiscent of two novels from twenty years earlier: Frank Norris’ The Octopus and The Pit, both of which attacked the blind destructiveness of speculation. But it’s also very much a novel of the 1920s and wild stock speculation, which ultimately led to the great market crash of 1929. Riesenberg’s work has less of Norris’ young man’s passion and more of the perspective and humor of a middle-aged man who’d already been through more than his share of adventures. Although Markham, his narrator, never seems to know what’s going to happen from moment to moment, the reader can’t help but catch the whiff of impending doom early on, and it’s no great surprise when it comes.

What I find most interesting about this book is simply the notion that a man with almost thirty years’ experience of working at sea, mastering the craft and sciences of navigation, sailing, propulsion, shipbuilding, and civil engineering, would pick up a pen and write this rollercoaster ride through the world of hype, gimmicks, and entrepeneurship. Riesenberg revels in the absurdity of Tangerman’s ventures and seems to have delighted in being able to pick the names of his characters: Punderwell Moore; Springer Platterly; Chauncey Wilber Tambey; Saxe Gubelstein; Jesspole McTwiller. (No one ever does find out what the initials P. A. L. stand for, though).

And then from this first novel, Riesenberg went on to write at least four others, all of them sweeping in scope, with dozens of characters up and down the social strata, and several (particularly Endless River) fairly experimental for their time.

While I don’t think P.A.L. should be considered a neglected masterpiece, it is a lively and self-confident novel than stands (in terms of literary merit) only a step or two back from Norris’ books (neither of which are really masterpieces, either, but better known for their historical importance). I’ve picked up three other Riesenberg novels, along with his 1937 autobiography, Living Again, and plan to spend some of the next months reviewing the fictional output of this remarkable man.

P. A. L.: A Novel of the American Scene, by Felix Riesenberg
New York City: Robert M. McBride & Company, 1925

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen

Cover of 'Presidents Who Have Known Me,' by George E. AllenWhen I spotted Presidents Who Have Known Me on the shelves of the Montana Valley Bookstore, I knew I had to get it. With a title like that, the book was either going to turn out to be a classic of egocentric bombast or an enjoyable exercise in self-mockery, something along the lines of Spike Milligan’s Adolf Hitler: My Part in his Downfall.

Instead, it turns out to be a little of each and not enough of either to recommend to anyone but a historian desperate for an anecdote about some figure or other from midcentury American politics. George E. Allen’s Wikipedia entry describes him as a “political operative,” and based on his book, it’s a good way to sum him up. A Mississippian who had a few unsuccessful years as a small-town lawyer, Allen managed to work his way through a variety of jobs, including lobbyist and hotel manager, until he became a staffer for Pat Harrison, the senior Democratic senator from Mississippi and a key Roosevelt ally in Congress. With Harrison’s support, along with that of FDR’s press secretary, Steve Early, he managed to get appointed as one of the commissioners running the District of Columbia–a post he held for most of the 1930s.

He also wangled his way into a variety of official and unofficial positions in the Democratic Party, which led him to work (if mostly intermittently and on the margins) with FDR and Truman. His were one of a number of hands through which the notorious series of hand-written notes from FDR that eventually led to Truman’s selection of the Vice Presidential candidate in 1944. Later, he became involved with Truman’s re-election campaign in 1948. One recollection of this experience manages to illustrate how Allen attempts to be self-deprecating and self-celebrating at the same time and manages to flub the whole thing:

Almost all the political experts, both professional and amateur, were wrong in their predictions about the outcome of the last Presidential election [1948–Ed.]. But not one of them was more wrong than I. Indeed, I was even wronger than George Gallup.

To make it worse, I was, at the time of the campaign, a sort of self-appointed unofficial advisor to President Harry S. Truman. I was in a position to tell him how is campaign should be run, and I did so. All through the campaign Mr. Truman ignored my advice, and all through the campaign I kep promising myself that when he lost to Thomas E. Dewey I would remember to be generous and not say, “I told you so.” When it was all over and he had won, I told him that I had been supremely confident of his defeat.

“So was everybody else,” he confided, “but you’re the first one who’s admitted it.”

In case we fail to get his point, Allen makes it again, and as obviously as humanly possible: “My point is that whereas almost everybody was wrong on this occasion I managed to rise above the pack and get credit for being outstandingly wrong.” Why do I get the feeling that George Allen had a tendency to repeat the punch line when a joke failed to get a big enough laugh?

Allen–whose chief assets appear to have been an endless supply of jokes and ready availability as an extra hand at poker and bridge–didn’t come from Missouri, but that aside, exemplified the band of card-playing buddies Truman kept close at hand for advice and support. Allen fit in well with the likes of Truman’s old World War One Army pal, Harry Vaughan, who was promoted to General and appointed as the President’s Military Aide on the strength of similar achievements.

Indeed, when Truman appointed Allen to a seat on the board of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the Washington Star broke the news with the headline, “Appointment of Allen to RFC Board Called Worst Choice Made by Truman.” Allen’s face made the cover of Time magazine, with the caption, “George E. Allen: For the President: jokes, cheers.” Despite the outcry of influential columnists such as Drew Pearson and Walter Lippmann, all of whom noted that Allen was utterly unqualified for the job, a circle of Democratic Party supporters, led by Senator Alben Barkley (who went on to become Truman’s running mate in 1948), arranged to get the appointment confirmed. Allen acknowledges his lack of qualifications but insists that he had to go through it for Truman’s sake. In the end, he resigned the post after a year, having done almost nothing. This he seems to consider an illustration of his personal integrity and loyalty to the President. One wonders why he didn’t try harder to talk Truman out of making the appointment in the first place.

No, actually, by the time one reaches this point in the book, the whole affair seems to sum up Allen’s character. After all, he uses the Time magazine portrait for the cover of his own book.

Allen’s ambiguous role in Washington politics seems to have rapidly grown smaller after the RFC stint, and the book may have been an earnest attempt to keep his name in the spotlight a bit longer. Although he assures his readers that, looking ahead to the growing struggle between democracy and communism, “the men who emerge as our leaders will have the incalculable advantage of knowing me,” the evidence shows that his principal patron after 1950 was FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, with whom he regularly lunched and went to the horse races. One may take some consolation that other American leaders failed to take advantage of Allen’s acquaintance.

Presidents Who Have Known Me, by George E. Allen
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

Cover of US paperback edition of 'A Sunset Touch'I found A Sunset Touch in the Internet Archive, which is interesting, as the book was published in 1960 by Scribner’s, so you’d think its copyright would have been renewed. A cursory check of the online U. S. copyright catalog failed to locate any registrations for Moira Pearce or this book in particular, however, so it seems legit. It’s one of dozens entered into the archive from the collections of Osmania University in Hyderabad, India. These include titles such as Sinclair Lewis’s late novel, Cass Timberlane and John Hersey’s 1960 novel, The Child Buyer that certainly are still under copyright.

In any case, legal or not, here is a perfect example of a forgotten book. A Sunset Touch was published by a major mainstream house, earned favorable, if not exceptional, reviews in Kirkus Reviews and a few other national publications, and was reissued as a mass market paperback. Now, the paperback publisher, Macfadden Books, has also since become forgotten, but at the time it was putting out best sellers such as Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative. Pearce published one other novel, Upstairs at the Bull Run, in 1971. Kirkus placed this book “in Josephine Lawrence country” (no doubt comparing it to Remember When We Had a Doorman?) and was equally positive in its assessment. But her second book earned no paperback release and appears to have marked the end of her publishing career. Since then, if anyone took any note of her work in print, I’ve been unable to find it.

I probably wouldn’t have given A Sunset Touch a second look had the book’s first paragraph not seemed too likeable and eccentric to pass up:

The church in Leicester wasn’t an old one, having been built in the 1920s after the original had burnt down. Designed by an architect who soon afterwards turned to farming, it was constructed inexpensively out of the local stone, which, happening to be marble, lent it a certain dignity. Neither inside nor outside had it much beauty or grace. On this breathless July day the presence in a coffin of Medusa Nash gave the church a certain interest macabre perhaps it didn’t otherwise have.

Medusa’s friends note the contrast between the body in the open casket and the woman they had known, the result of the handiwork of Mrs. Greef, the undertaker’s wife and self-taught beautician:

…[T]he thick, wildly curling hair that was responsible for her name and that Medusa during her lifetime had seldom, if ever, submitted to a hairdresser, preferring the more individual look she achieved herself with a pair of nail scissors, this hair was now pressed flat to her skull and set with an iron in
tight, formal waves. She had been vain of her long eyelashes and customarily coated them heavily with mascara, outlining the lids with black pencil, but since the idea of eye makeup had never impinged on Mrs, Greeff’s consciousness Medusa’s face now appeared for the first and last time in public without it.

In the course of Medusa’s service and funeral, we are introduced to most of the major characters in the book. They are a mix of wealthy and middle-class–but all middle-aged–residents of an area of rural Massachussetts popular with weekend visitors and escapees from Boston. Together, they indulge in a heavy amount of drinking, a moderate amount of commentary on the local yokels, and an occasional venture into adultery.

In the course of two hundred-some pages, not much really happens. There is a weak attempt at an affair, and several attempts by Medusa’s sister-in-law to dump her brother, the surviving spouse and a partially-disabled stroke victim, on one of the group. And there are several parties where the idiosyncracies of the various friends are displayed:

Cora, though she loved all her dogs passionately, did not believe in ruining their figures by providing them with more than one sketchy meal a day, that is, if someone remembered to set it out. Aristocratically lean in the haunches they would sit at your feet and watch you gloomily as you ate canapes. Occasionally,
summoning up a burst of energy, one would slap a grimy paw onto your knee and pant up at you in a desperate plea for a handout before lapsing back into its anemia-induced torpor.

In one way or another, most of them spend some time contemplating what lies ahead on their lives’ downhill slopes. Throughout the book, there is a grim, grey backdrop to its otherwise lightly comic tone:

Where another woman might call on the vet for assistance in putting down the excess animal population, she took matters into her own hands. “After all,” she’d tell you briskly in her flute-like accents, “animals have no souls, what is the use of getting sentimental about them?” Also, the vet, with his fancy gas chambers and humanitarian injections, ran into money. So every so often Cora got out a certain sack,
filled it with puppies or kittens and descended, cheerfully humming a hymn tune, to finish them off in the brook below the house.

In the end, no one is much changed or much the wiser, and the story just sort of fades out.

So is this a justly or unjustly neglected book? I guess it depends on whether one decides based on literary merit or reading pleasure. On the first criterion, A Sunset Touch is certainly no milestone in the development of the novel. Aside from a certain post-Peyton Place relaxation of morals, it could have been written twenty or thirty years earlier. There are no stylistic risks taken and the omniscient narrator’s perspective is essentially the same as that taken by Tolstoy a hundred years earlier. And the book is weak from a structural standpoint, as Pearce constructs a promising opening around Medusa’s funeral and then dissipates its potential in following the various characters down a series of paths that lead nowhere in particular.

On the basis of reading pleasure, however, A Sunset Touch represents about four hours’ worth of intelligent, amusing observations of people and all their minor flaws and foibles. On the comic spectrum, it sits to the right of Wodehouse and to the left of Jane Austen–not quite ridiculous, not quite elegant. And perhaps its moderation is the reason A Sunset Touch has been forgotten.

After all, the economics of book-buying and book-reading hinge on perceptions of relative value. It’s rarely a question of, “To read or not to read?” Instead, it’s a question of “Do I read this or do I read that?” And mildly amusing and mildly thought-provoking books are just too easy to pass over. Moira Pearce had no prior work on which to base a reputation, as as the paperback cover above demonstrates, even her publishers didn’t know how to pitch this book. Had she written it thirty years before, she might have at least gained the critical support that the Saturday Review and other journals put behind the works of Humphrey Pakington (who?)–another writer of mildly comic novels I plan to feature sometime soon.

If you’ve stayed with me this far, then you’ve probably had enough of a taste of A Sunset Touch to make your own relative judgment. For my part, I can say that I enjoyed finding out just what kind of a book it was, and I will be happy to pick up a copy of Upstairs at the Bull Run if I ever stumble across one. On the other hand, I won’t just go right to Amazon and order it, as I have a great stack of other books that appear to have equal or higher relative value. But I’m sure that I’m not the only one who won’t regret setting aside a few hours to discover this fine but forgotten book.

A Sunset Touch, by Moira Pearce

New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960

The Inside Story of an Outsider, by Franz Schoenberner

Cover of first edition of "The Inside Story of an Outsider, by Franz Schoenberner"Although Franz Schoenberner was a man of letters for his entire adult life, aside from a short time of service in the German Army at the end of World War One, he was over fifity before he wrote his first book. Throughout the 1920s and up to Hitler’s taking power as Chancellor of Germany in early 1933, Schoenberner was a journalist and editor–most notably of the satirical (and anti-Nazi) weekly, Simplicissimus. As such, he was an archetypal European intellectual of the golden days of transnational humanism–the world of Stefan Zweig, Jules Romains, and André Gide. Not surprisingly, then, when he did come to write his first book–a clear-eyed and self-deprecating account of that period–he titled it, Confessions of a European Intellectual.

When the Nazis began cracking down on all forms of political opposition following the Reichstag fire in February 1927, however, Schoenberner quickly realized that the only options available to him were exile or imprisonment. Taking a few belongings and a little money in a backpack, he crossed into Switzerland in March 1933 and began life as a refugee. The Inside Story of an Outsider, his second book, published in 1949, is his account of eight years of living as an outsider.

From the time they set foot in Switzerland until their acceptance as long-term residents of the United States in 1941, Schoenberner and his wife, the novelist Ellie Nerac, existed in a political and economic limbo. For most of this time, their passports were in the hands of the local police. They could not leave without visas and sufficient funds to gain entry to another country, and they could not return to Germany without risking certain imprisonment or death in a concentration camp. Their status did not allow them to hold down regular jobs, and no one in Switzerland or France needed an editor of a liberal German-language magazine. Nazi laws had made it almost impossible to get any of their funds out of their German bank accounts or to sell their remaining property, and what small royalties they could get out of selling an occasional article in a Swiss or French magazine often took months to make it through a complex chain of bank transfers.

Even so, Schoenberner and Nerac were able to get by, living in cheap apartments in the south of France and devising countless ways to economize. These he recalls in a charming chapter titled, “How to Live Without Money.” “Having lived so many years almost exclusively by miracles, I feel obliged to relate for the personal benefit and encouragement of my readers some of these experiences and even some of the practical techniques which, as I have found, are likely to create the practical and psychological preconditions for such miracles to happen.”

Schoenberner is the first to admit that what he and his wife experienced–even the months of internment with thousands of refugees in filthy camps run with gross incompetence by the Vichy French–hardly compared with the fate of millions of other victims of the Second World War. Even among his fellow internees, some found their situation too much to bear. Schoenberner recounts the fate of his friend, the poet Walter Hasenclever, in the Camps des Milles, outside Aix-en-Provence:

Only when, getting up at dawn, I suddenly heard that Hasenclever could not be awakened, I knew that his good night had been a last good-by. He was still breathing when two stretcher bearers brought him to the infirmary. But a last look at his face–so deadly pale and deadly quiet–made me feel sure that any attempt to save him would be in vain. An empty tube of veronal had been found in the straw of his sleeping place. He probably had taken all the twenty tablets shortly after going to bed, and I knew enough of medicine to be certain that after eight hours the stomach pump could not remove the poison from his body. … If he reused to take this chance, it was because his will to live, as well as to create, was exhausted, and the new struggle seemed no longer worth while to him. If all he wanted was peace, life should not be forced upon him. In our times more than ever, life would always mean the opposite of peace, and everyone had to make his choice, Since he had decided for peace, it should not be disturbed.

Schoenberner had the advantage of a tremendous internal resilience–and of just enough recognition outside Germany–based largely on the reputation of Simplicissimus–to win an occasional favor with a French official–such as a release from a internment camp outside Bayonne just a day or so ahead of its being taken over by German forces.

Franz Schoenberner, 1949He and Nerac also benefitted from the support of their friend, the German novelist Hermann Kesten, who was active on the Emergency Rescue Committee in the U.S.. Eventually, with the help of Varian Fry, the committee’s representative in Marseilles, who was responsible for the release of thousands of refugees from Vichy France, they were able to pull together the necessary paperwork and enough funds to gain passage to New York via Lisbon.

Having made it to the safety of the United States did not, however, mean that all their worries were over. They still faced the challenge of adapting to a new language and culture and finding a way to make a living. Fortunately, standing alone and stranded with their few suitcases in a customs shed on Staten Island, they sought out the help of woman wearing a Red Cross uniform.

This woman turned out to be a member of the local Unitarian Church, and her generosity in taking them in, offering room and board for weeks, helping them find a place to stay in Manhattan, setting them up with connections for work, and simply offering much-needed compassion and support to two very tired and uncertain people, makes you wish that all refugees coming to this country could experience the same kind of welcome.

As do many writers trying to tell a story with a happy ending, Schoenberner struggles a bit in the final chapters of The Inside Story of an Outsider. He throws in a tribute to the work of Thomas Wolfe that has little to do with the rest of the book–particularly given that Schoenberner never met or knew Wolfe personally. Although he is able to gain a position with the Office of War
and is persuaded to write Confessions of a European Intellectual, which wins very favorable reviews, he does not believe that the peace achieved at the end of the war represents anything but an ugly compromise. Schoenberner is unwilling to attribute any special meaning to his experiences or his choice to record them aside from the imperative for a writer to be “an incorruptible witness.”

I hope I’m not being too rude when I say, however, that, for a German intellectual, Schoenberner’s style and outlook are surprisingly light and optimistic. One might say he possesses an almost Gallic charm. And it is the pleasure of spending some hours in the company of a remarkable narrator–intelligent, compassionate, humorous and self-effacing–that makes The Inside Story of an Outsider a book worth seeking out. Over the last few days, I’ve always enjoyed picking it up, even if just for a few minutes, and regretted setting it down. Considering the book’s subject, that’s quite a recommendation.

The Inside Story of an Outsider, by Franz Schoenberner
New York City: The Macmillan Company, 1949

Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville

Cover of first U. S. edition of "Breaking Up," by W. H. Manville

I was tempted to tag this post Justly Neglected?, as Breaking Up, W. H. Manville’s 1962 bizarre novel of obsessively apathetic love is really quite bad. But out of respect for the fine work of graphic arts legend, Tony Palladino, who also designed the cover for Robert Bloch’s novel, Psycho, I’m listed this under “Covers.”

For Breaking Up, Palladino came up with a simple, striking image: an upside-down aerial shot of midtown Manhattan. It worked its magic with me, as it was the cover rather than the jacket blurb that led me to buy and read the book. Well, that and the setting: I’m always a sucker for books set in Manhattan, particularly when the protagonist works on Madison Avenue. And one could imagine Bill, the husband whose wife leaves him in the opening chapter, working alongside Don Draper–although it’s clear he lacks any real talent as an ad man, sculptor, or lover. His creative director sums up his character succinctly:

You want to be the American Rembrandt of the sculpture guys, you want to succeed in this business–you’ll wake up to the fact you want the dough as much as anyone one of these days–you want to have the greatest love story of all time with your wife, you want to be the guy who can beat the system, who can do all the other things, too. All without working at any of them. You want all that. Result: you get paralyzed.

Which reminds me of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s wonderful assessment of one of his acquaintances, Barry Pink: “Pink wants to sit on six stools at once, but he only has one arse.”

For a good two-thirds of the book, the reader has to follow Bill around as he wrestles with that timeless question: does he, or doesn’t he? His eyes are eventually opened to the anguish his wife has suffered trying to reconcile herself to the fact that her husband is an apathetic lump (he helps her pack when she moves out). He comes across her diary from the months before the break-up:

He is teaching me sculpture. It is hard for him to do and I pretend not to be too eager. He feels it is his own and as if he is giving part of himself away to me. And he is–at last.

Bill, I’ve been starving for you.

He finds in it a refuge. Sometimes I’m glad he has something in which he is not locked up and incoherent, but it frightens me in him. So remote.

Thus the angst of the remote Bill, seeking an outlet in his art, is channeled and magnified by his wife. My own feeling about Bill can be summed up by a quote from Tom Lehrer: “I feel that if a person has problems communicating, the very least he can do is to shut up.”

Somehow the revelations of the diary trigger a burst of action from the clod, and in the final chapters, in the course of one frenetic night, he tries to win her back, tries to destroy the tubercular male model she’s hooked up with, tries to orchestrate a con by which his agency’s key account can be saved, and tries to win a big account on which he and the above creative director can set up a new agency of their own. It’s not only completely unbelievable but technically inept: it’s not too entertaining when the juggler is running around the stage chasing after dropped balls.

It’s a good thing I read this on board a transatlantic flight: it forced me to withstand the temptation to toss the book out the window. Breaking Up is one book that deserves to sleep with the fishes.

Breaking Up, by W. H. Manville
New York: Simon and Schuster, 1962

The Patriot, by Harold Bienvenu

Cover of Avon paperback edition of "The Patriot" by Harold BienvenuWhen I picked up an old paperback edition of Harold Bienvenu’s 1964 novel, The Patriot, I was hoping it might turn out to be a forgotten gem. From the cover blurbs, it was clearly a scathing view of right-wing Southern California politics from the heyday of Barry Goldwater. A young public relations man sets up shop in a fictional version of San Bernardino or Riverside, and stumbles into a connection with right wing minister. Together they decide to form the American Patriots, a group blending the tenets of the John Birch Society, the NRA, and Senator Joe MacCarthy.

“I am an American Patriot. I believe in a Supreme Being. I believe in the American Republic. I believe in the American Constitution. I believe in the American Enterprise System. I am an American Patriot.” So goes the group’s oath. At first it’s little but a flag-waving version of the Rotary, but with the help of a local millionaire (modelled on Walter Knott of Knott’s Berry Farm) and the PR man’s hard work, it soon becomes a force in local politics and business. Stores are pressured into sponsoring the group and displaying American Patriot cards. A not-too-subtle boycott is organized: “No member who is an American Patriot would trade with any professional man, or any businessman, who is ashamed to proclaim himself a patriot.”

At this point, The Patriot could have developed into something promising. But having created the situation, novice novelist Bienvenu (a professor of economics by trade) quickly loses all control, and the story spirals off into lurid silliness. In the course of a few chapters, the PR man dumps his lounge singer girlfriend, agrees to become a bagman for a Howard Hughes-like billionaire in return for a shot at the local Congressional seat, and rapes and then marries the Knott-like millionaire’s lesbian daughter. Bienvenu might have started out with the aim of writing a serious book, but he caught the Harold Robbins mojo and ended up with a gawdawful mess.

Hands down the worst book I’ve read this century.

Ads from the Saturday Review of Literature

I had the chance to pick up an assorted lot of bound issues of the Saturday Review of Literature from the 1920s to the 1950s and have been going through them in search of well-regarded but since forgotten books.

However, just as interesting as the reviews have been the ads–particularly the personal ads, which became a regular feature of the magazine somewhere in the early 1930s. These are touchingly open and naive, amusingly pompous, cryptic, or–often–downright bizarre. Here are a few examples:

  • Correspondence invited concerning social patterns, individual reactions, one more script, the country, pox, or your favorites. By mature man. Box 520-D.
  • AMIABLE MALE wishes employment based not solely upon his 23 years. Some education (art), much erudition; deep love of music. Long fingers, but firm palms. Though no derring-doer, worn or untrod paths considered. Box P-973.
  • HEY GALS! Let’s swap hats! If your friends are tired of seeing you in that hat send it to us with $3.00 and we will send you a new-to-you sterilized hat. What can you lose? No junk, please. Hat-to-you, 816 Broad St., Chattanooga, Tenn.

  • TO JUNKETS—alone and palely loitering. Yes.—you were saying… .? SANS MERCI.

So, to share some of these wonderful snippets of past lives, I put together a Tumblr site that will offer up other samples once or twice a day:


There’s enough of a supply to keep this going for a year or so. Check it out.

Keeper of the Flame, by I. A. R. Wylie

Cover of Popular Library paperback edition of "Keeper of the Flame"

This Popular Library edition of I. A. R. Wylie’s 1942 novel, Keeper of the Flame, dates from the early 1960s. There are some remarkable titles to be found among the best-sellers, bodice-rippers, and dreck that Popular Library released in the late 1950s and early 1960s. I wrote about a few of them about a year ago in the post, Digging into the Popular Libary at the Montana Valley Book Store.”

This is a particularly odd example. MGM purchased the film rights to Keeper of the Flame when the book was still unpublished. It was then published by Random House before the film was released, but subsequent runs featured a dust jacket with a still shot from the movie.

The film is best remembered today as Katherine Hepburn and Spencer Tracy’s first, but it and the novel are nothing like their usual comedies. Steven O’Malley (Tracy), a celebrated foreign correspondent of the Quentin Reynolds-Vincent Sheean-John Gunter school, recently returned from Europe, takes an assignment to write the life story of Robert Forrest, a New England governor who’s inspired a nationwide populist movement. Forrest is considered a Lincoln-like figure, the great hope of the nation, but as O’Malley investigates, he finds there are some curious figures in Forrest’s household–including his wife.

I won’t spoil the ending, but let’s just say that Forrest proves to have been a little more like Lincoln Rockwell than Abraham Lincoln.

Aside from the unusual story, Keeper of the Flame–both the novel and the film–are far more interesting seen in the context of their external connections and references. One watches the film looking for hints of the budding attraction between Hepburn and Tracy. One reads the novel in light of the figures such as Charles Lindburgh and Father Coughlin who inspired popular movements in America in the 1930s and 1940s–movements we now see as having a darker side.

Having written recently about Wylie’s memoir, My Life with George, I was impressed by two aspects of the book. First, it’s hard not to think that Wylie wrote it for the screen: there are at least a dozen scenes that play out exactly as filmed, and the whole sequence of the narrative matches that of the film so tightly it could have been a novelization after the fact. Second, despite the many superficial and clichéd characterizations, it’s obvious that Wylie was a very world-smart woman: if she played down her intelligence, it was because she’d had, by the 1940s, also thirty years’ experience of making a living with her writing.

Walter Mehring

At the moment, Walter Mehring’s poems, essays and novels are out of print in both German and English. Mehring’s The Lost Library:The Autobiography of a Culture is, like Stefan Zweig’s The World of Yesterday, a paean to the humanist culture of Central Europe before the rise of Hitler.

Walter Mehring

You can read a short bio at Wikipedia and an obituary from the New York Times.

A number of Mehring’s poems were set to music. You can listen to several on YouTube: “Charité”, performed by Wacholder, and “American Riesenspielzeug”, sung by Joseline Gassen.

Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard Reissued–in Spanish

Several years ago, Diego D’Onofrio, one of the partners in La Bestia Equilátera, a small press located in Buenos Aires, contacted me asking for suggestions of neglected books that might be of interested to his readers. La Bestia Equilátera, which translates literally to “The Equilateral Beast,” had already published the works of a number of English-language authors that qualify as neglected–or at least until-recently-neglected: Julian McLaren-Ross; Alfred Hayes; David Markson; Ivy Compton-Burnett; and Lord Berners.

Cover of 'El caballero que cayó al mar' translation of 'Gentleman Overboard'After a quick check of La Bestia’s catalog, I knew just what to recommend: Herbert Clyde Lewis’ Gentleman Overboard, which I’d just featured on this site. Gentleman Overboard is a small masterpiece, a marvel of precise writing and imagination. One reader on Goodreads describes it as “Wodehouse meets Sartre”–which is an excellent précis. It starts out as a restrained comedy and evolves into a profoundly moving meditation on existence.

I didn’t hear from Diego again until a couple of months ago, when he contacted me looking for some more recommendations. To my surprise and great pleasure, he informed me that La Bestia Equilátera had, in 2010, published El Caballero que Cayó al Mar: a translation in Spanish by Laura Wittner of Gentleman Overboard. Diego reported that the book had sold well and earned some good reviews from critics and bloggers. They had even put together a fun little website dedicated to the book: elcaballeroquecayo.com.ar, where you can read the first chapter.

Diego was kind enough to send me a copy of the book, along with two others from La Bestia that deal, at least in part, with lesser-known books. Siluetas, by Argentinian writer Luis Chitarroni, an editor at La Bestia, is a collection of essays and reviews of a wide range of authors and their works. Many are fairly well-known, even best-sellers such as P. D. James. However, there are also a few that will appeal to any fan of neglected books–including William Gerhardie, Flann O’Brien, Logan Pearsall Smith, and Oliver St. John Gogarty. Informes de lectura/Cartas a Montale is a collection of letters written by Roberto Bazlen, a lifelong resident of Trieste, to friends, writers, and publishers about books. Bazlen was a voracious reader, fluent in a number of languages, and he was constantly championing the works of writers from far and wide. Bazlen was, in particular, a friend of the Nobel Prize-winning poet Eugenio Montale, and the second half of the book is a selection of letters Bazlen wrote to Montale between 1925 and 1930.

I won’t mention the books I recommended when Diego contacted me again in May, for fear of jinxing them, but one of them was one of Isabel Paterson’s three amazing novels from the 1930s. I notice that all three are available now from Amazon in Kindle format, but when the heck will someone reissue one or all of them in paper?

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James

“What’s so funny ’bout Peace, Love and Understanding?,” Nick Lowe once asked in a song. But there’s nothing funny about them, of course, which is why there are times in each of our lives when Hatred and Intolerance bust through our better selves like the Tasmanian Devil. Which is usually a mistake.

But there are rare times when giving in to our lower devils is as satisfying as picking at a scab and watching it come off clean. I suspect Leslie James felt that way throughout the entire process of writing this book.

Americans in Glasshouses is a straight-faced dissertation, written in the voice of a dispassionate scholar, on the subject of what is wrong with Americans and why. The situation, as James saw it back in 1950, when the book was first published, was, at the root, very simple:

    AMERICANS feel they are the most insecure people on earth. That is natural, because they have:

    1. A highly competitive culture in which no one can feel himself to be permanently successful.
    2. A compulsive need to consume.
    3. An unhealthy and woman-dominated family-structure.
    4. No culture.
    5. A political system which no mature people would tolerate.
    6. No souls.
    7. Much more than their just share of the world’s goods.

Ah, to have the confidence of such unadulterated prejudices.

Of course, sixty years later, this is still both stereotype and uncomfortably close to the truth.

James’ aim is “to standardize the diverse impressions about America in European minds.” There is such nonsense written and said about America in Europe, argues this serious-minded academic, and it leaves too many merely confused. If only Europeans could gain a real understanding of America, then they would be able to teach Americans to conduct themselves properly. And what is proper conduct? Why, “in the manner English gentlemen thought other Englishmen should conduct themselves, when England was the leading Power in the world,” of course.

James writes with the power of authority, authority gained from close study and painstaking analysis. He is familiar with all the latest research and an experienced traveler who has seen every corner of the country. This is why he can assure, as he does in one of the many scholarly asides footnoted on almost every page, that, “All people who do not read The New Yorker are forced to live in the suburban equivalent of city slums, referred to as ‘the wrong side of the tracks.’ Those who do not read the Reader’s Digest either, are forced to live on the tracks. Neither group is permitted to own a station-wagon or join a country club.”

This is, of course, utter nonsense, and if you’ve made it to this point in the book, you’ve already figured out that this is a book-length counterfeit, as fake as a three dollar bill. And as deft and successful as a hat trick.

It’s clear within a few pages that this is all tongue-in-cheek and artfully pompous. And if that’s all it were, this would have been better done as a three-page piece in Punch. What makes Americans in Glasshouses worth reading after sixty years is that it’s still a good old-fashioned hoot. James’ stereotypes are occasionally a bit long in the tooth (though I guess that cocktail parties are sort of coming back), but always so overblown that it’s hard not to smile:

As is well-known outside America, Americans lack souls. This makes them even simpler to understand. It makes them both simple and simple-minded. (Souls are notoriously correlated with complexity, and therefore with higher mental development.) It is therefore unnecessary to go below the surface to learn about Americans, because most of them only live on the surface.

And it’s impossible for James’ windbag scholar not to let more than a few equally amusing stereotypes about the English slip in:

Everyone in Europe knows that American children are badly brought up. This is because their parents bring them up themselves instead of using nannies and boarding schools.

Thus, reading Americans in Glasshouses comes to seem like a guilt-free vacation from tolerance and understanding.

Copies of Americans in Glasshouses are available on Amazon for as little as $1.98, but you can get electronic versions free at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/americansinglass000094mbp.

Americans in Glasshouses, by Leslie James
New York City: Henry Schuman, Inc., 1950

“The Pearls of Publishing,” from the Saturday Review

Back in November 1949, a three-part series called, “The Pearls of Publishing” appeared in the Saturday Review. “In the hope of increasing and prolonging the public’s interest in deserving books,” the magazine’s editors asked American publishers “to think back over the books issued during the past year and select two titles–one issued by their own house, one by another firm–which, in their opinion, failed to get the response they deserved.” This did not have to mean the book was a flop: simply that it “failed to achieve the full impact” it should have.

Despite good sales and critical acclaim that eventually led to its selection as the 1949 Pulitzer Prize winner for fiction, several publishers still named James Gould Cozzens’ Guard of Honor, which was featured in the early days of this site. Elizabeth Charlotte Webster’s Ceremony of Innocence, a Candide-esque satire on religion and conventional mores that I stumbled across in the great Montana Valley Book Store last year, was nominated twice.

While a fair number of the books were too topical (Strategic Air Power for Dynamic Security) to expect anyone to remember them today, a fair number of intriguing titles pop up in the course of the three articles. Here is a sample:

Olivia, by Olivia

Kurt Wolff, a legendary figure in publishing and then working at Pantheon, nominated Olivia, an anonymous novel published by William Sloane Associates: “A very beautiful and subtly written account of adolescent experience, which has lost nothing of its intensity by maturing in the cellar of memory…. It combines fine writing with moving content, and is a thoroughly civilized book. The anonymous author was later identified as Dorothy Bussy, nee Strachey–one of Lytton Strachey’s sisters. The book was about a young schoolgirl’s crush on the headmistress of her boarding school and was based on her experiences at the school run by Marie Souvestre before she founded Allenwood, where Souvestre had a profound influence on the young Eleanor Roosevelt.

Mr. Preen’s Salon, by Robert Tallant

Theodore Purdy of Appleton-Century-Croft called this Doubleday novel, “A witty and delightful picture of New Orleans life … a good antidote to the innumerable lush and overheated books on that city which have been published in recent years.” Tallant was something of a scribe of New Orleans, with other titles such as Voodoo in New Orleans and The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans to his credit.

The Golden Warrior, Hope Muntz

With four mentions, this historical novel about the Norman Conquest was the favorite among those polled. LeBaron Barker of Doubleday wrote of the book, “Miss Muntz’s success with the chronicle form, to my way of thinking, is going to have a decided effect on the whole historical-novel categoy,” and Edward Shenton of Macrae-Smith called it “a stark, somber story, written with great restraint but with a depth of feeling and power that set it apart from most books of its kind.”

The Willow Cabin, by Pamela Frankau

“One of the finest novels I have read in a long time. The writing itself should stand as an example for young novelists, and the characters come alive in a fashion that very few novelists have been able to achieve. There is little or no sensationalism, no extreme exaggeration or histrionics; yet the story and the people have stayed with me very clearly since I read it.”–W. E. Larned, Whittlesey House

The Witness, by Jean Bloch-Michel

Kurt Wolff recommended this French novel, which Pantheon published in translation, as did George Pellegrini. “Its central theme–the destructiveness of moral solitude–is of timely and universal interest. Though hailed by a majority of critics as an outstanding piece of sober, fine and compelling writing, sales have nor corresponded to our expectations.” Pellegrini called it, “The kind of book that people talk about once they’ve read it.”

Trials of a Translator, by Ronald Knox

Marigold Hunt, an editor of Sheed & Ward, a publisher specializing in Catholic books run by novelist Wilfrid Sheed’s father, recommended this account of Knox’ struggles in translating the Bible: “Msgr. Knox’s own explanations of the kind of translation he was aiming at, and his replies to his foremost critics would have had a much wider appeal than has so far been the case. It isn’t as if he was the stuffy kind of scholar, or as if, at this date, anyone was likely to suppose him to be: Trials of a Translator is not only instructive, but exceptionally good fun.”

Napoleon: For and Against, by Pieter Geyl

Conceived while a prisoner at Buchenwald, Napoleon: For and Against was one of the first works of meta-history–an assessment of how Napoleon was viewed by a series of French historian, and a fine illustration of Geyl’s view of history as an “argument without end.” Nominated both by its own house, the Yale University Press, and an editor from the rival Princeton University Press, who wrote, “The message–for all of us, not just for historians–is that we should search our souls pretty thoroughly before claiming that we have discovered objective truth.”

Last of the Conquerors, by William Gardner Smith

Robert Haas of Random House recommended this novel from Farrar, Straus: “A fine novel … about a Negro in our Army of Occupation in Germany … a disturbing commentary on the way democracy sometimes fails to work. Extremely well written and with something really important to say.”

Late Have I Loved Thee, by Ethel Mannin

Frank Bruce of Bruce Publishing compared this to Thomas Merton’s The Seven Storey Mountain: “Conveying a message of deep significance for all, in the vein of ‘What profiteth a man if he gaineth the whole world, etc.’–a philosophy which many have completely ignored–Ethel Mannin’s book is a masterful work which could do an immense amount of good in its revelation of today’s basic problem.”

The Man Who Carved Woman from Wood, by Max White

John Fischer from Harper & Brothers picked this as his firm’s best under appreciated title: “Admittedly not a book for every reading taste but those of us here who like it for its odd and spirited blend of fancy and humor are convinced that there are fifteen or twenty thousand readers in the country who would enjoy it.”

The Saracen’s Head, or, The Reluctant Crusader, by Osbert Lancaster

“A ‘children’s book’ which should really be read for pleasure by ‘children from eight to eighty,'” wrote John Fischer of Harper & Brothers. This account of a knightly equivalent of Ferdinand the bull was the first of three, which chronicled the history of the the Littlehamptons of Drayneflete from prehistory to 1940. They were ultimately collected as The Littlehampton Saga. The other titles were
Drayneflete Revealed and The Littlehampton Bequest. Lancaster, who illustrated Nancy Mitford’s novels and created cartoons for Punch filled his drawings for these books with Easter eggs for those familiar with odd bits of English history and architecture.

  • My Place to Stand, by Bentz Plagemann
    John Farrar of Farrar, Straus nominated this from his own catalog: “One of the finest accounts of the overcoming of a physical handicap ever written. It has tenderness, honesty, and spiritual overtones, and a personal narrative. It has taste. It has made more friends and will make more, but it is difficult to understand why they have not been quicker to discover one of the books of the year that has wisdom and hope in it.”

    Cream Hill

    This account of life on a Connecticut farm, written by editor and weekend countryman Lewis Gannett, led a usually-sober Kirkus Review to gush, “This opened a new door & me — a peek into the past of our countryside, a realization that it is not only in manmade things that we are the melting pot of the world. For here–along our roadsides–are flowers and grasses, shrubs and trees, immigrants from all parts of the world… It is a potpourri of Connecticut’s countryside natural history, the flowers and trees and shrubs, the vegetables, the wild plants he grew–and the ones he couldn’t grow. There’s nature lore, too,–the tomato has a wholly new personality for me. The thrill of his fern garden is contagious. And the seasonal round of week-end country living was alluring for its likes and its unlikes to our own, not very many miles away.”
  • James Agate on Emil Ludwig’s Beethoven: The Life of a Conqueror

    January 4, Thursday (1945)

    Dipping into Emil Ludwig’s Beethoven: the Life of a Conqueror, I find this on the G major Piano Concerto:

    At the beginning the piano emerges gently from dreams; this is truly Beethoven improvising. Two romantic themes, renunciation and hope, are gradually developed. When, after an orchestral interlude, the piano is heard again solo, it is as if a butterfly rose ecstatically from its cocoon. There are no fortissimos here, and when the call to new adventures sounds, the butterfly sinks back, dreaming. The whole thing is wrapped in dark-red velvet. . . .

    And about the C minor Concerto, that it begins with

    stormy scale passages three octaves long, like a roaring lion appearing suddenly with threatening mien in the midst of the orchestra.

    I have nothing with all this stuff about cocoons, red velvet, and roaring lions. Presently I read, “Beethoven dedicated his adagios to women.” And I say that the man who can read sex into the slow movements of the Hammerklavier Sonata and the Ninth Symphony would believe that Wagner’s Venusberg music is a Hymn to Chastity! Next I read that in the F major Rasoumowsky Quartet, “the cello continues to exude platonic wisdom.” Feeling that this amateur has exuded enough nonsense, I open the window and neatly drop his book on to a passing lorry’s tarpaulin’d top.

    From The Later Ego, by James Agate

    A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman

    Cover of UK paperback edition of 'A Dream of Treason'Elected at the age of 34 as the member for Coventry in the Labour wave that swept Churchill out of as Prime Minister after VE Day, Maurice Edelman served in Parliament until his death 30 years later. And while he may not have enjoyed the historical fame of Disraeli or the sales of Jeffery Archer, he may be the supreme representative of that exclusive class, the British MP-slash-novelist. Between 1951 and 1974, he published over a dozen novels, along with a handful of non-fiction works.

    While I wouldn’t call him a great writer, Edelman was certainly adept at producing novels that managed to be both entertaining and intelligent. His paperback publishers tended to slap racy covers on his books in blatant attempts to convince unsuspecting browsers into thinking them essentially indistinguishable from other shelf fodder. One can picture copies of A Dream of Treason or Shark Island or Disraeli in Love next to the finest works of Erle Stanley Gardner, Mac Bolan or Barbara Cartland. Had he been more of a publicity hound, he might even have been able to boost his numbers into Jeffery Archer’s range.

    If you were to judge by their covers–and if they weren’t pandering, they were just boring–you’d think Edelman’s books fully deserve their fate today: utterly forgotten and disregarded. But good things sometimes hide behind terrible packaging. Flip past the title page of any of his novels, and you will find material far more subtle, sophisticated and intelligent that you’d have reason to suspect.

    A Dream of Treason, his third novel (1955), is a perfect example. Its protagonist, Martin Lambert, is a mid-level civil servant in the Foreign Office who appears to be doomed to spend the rest of his career in mediocrity. Lambert is married to an alcoholic who’s spent her recent years hopping into Lambert’s colleague’s beds, spending months in institutions, or making scenes at embassy affairs–in other words, a frightful liaibility for an aspiring diplomat. Too unstable a property to risk putting her husband in more prominent positions.

    Until he’s approached by Brangwyn, the brash and ambitious new Foreign Secretary, with a proposal to pass some controversial state papers to a radical French journalist. It is a patently treasonous act, and Brangwyn has marked Lambert as someone just desperate enough to do it, in return for a posting that will give his career a second wind. The deal is made, and Lambert makes the drop in a quiet room of the National Gallery, looking forward to a move to Tokyo.

    And then Brangwyn dies in a plane crash, leaving Lambert with no posting, no protector, and no alibi. The leaked material makes the expected splash in the French press, and the Foreign Office security officers begin hunting for its source. Lambert is quickly suspected but the investigation is pursued with typical bureaucratic deliberation–which means he is allowed to spend days wondering about his fate and his options. Edelman is quite effective in portraying the plight of a man who is about to be caught and has no good way out.

    But he is at his best in capturing the intricate interplay between politics and bureaucracy that defines the workings of British government. The permanence of the Civil Service and the transcience of part-led governments creates an environment where the leaders can often find themselves subordinated to the people who are meant to follow them. Lambert’s biggest mistake, the Permanent Undersecretary–the senior civil servant in the Foreign Office–points out to him, was to put his faith in a politician rather than in his own kind:

    “I’ll tell you this, Martin. The politician’s never been born who in the long run can stand up to a determined Civil Servant. Oh, I know that some tough Minister can come along and throw his weight about. He’ll stir up the Department study the functional diagram say he wants this and that. And then he’ll have to go off to a dinner or a conference or to a Cabinet meeting. And in the meantime, the Civil Servant will be co-operating with his great ally inertia. Inertia: it’s eminent among the graces.”

    Edelman is at his worst, however, when he wanders from office and club into the realm of sex. There is a romance, between Lambert and a girl of nineteen. It is veddy British and veddy icky: “He put his arm around her waist and from there, under her left armpit, and they walked together slowly and with out speaking towards the light of the postern-gate, while beneath his fingers, he felt her breast, firm and pendant in the rhythm of their motion.” This is low, not love.

    If you can overlook the ham-fisted attempts at romance, A Dream of Treason is remarkably successful as a thinking person’s entertainment, the sort of thing you read as a nice break between weightier books. I’ve ordered a couple more of Edelman’s novels for just such occasions.

    You can find electronic copies of A Dream of Treason online at the Internet Archive: http://archive.org/details/dreamoftreason001478mbp.

    A Dream of Treason, by Maurice Edelman
    New York: J. B. Lippincott, 1955

    The Red Monarch, by Yuri Krotkov

    Cover of first U.S. edition of 'The Red Monarch'In his 2002 book, Koba the Dread: Laughter and the Twenty Million, Martin Amis wrote, “it has always been possible to joke about the Soviet Union, just as it has never been possible to joke about Nazi Germany.” When Penguin released the paperback edition of Yuri Krotkov’s 1979 novel, The Red Monarch: Scenes from the Life of Stalin, the cover featured a pencil sketch of Stalin topped by a big red clown’s nose, clearly demonstrating that the Soviet dictator had already reached the point where he could be treated with ridicule.

    Krotkov’s purpose in writing The Red Monarch was not comic, though the book is full of moments of gallows humor, schadenfreude and even a few authentic jokes. Born within days of the October Revolution, Krotkov grew up surrounded by the image and impact of Stalin. “I never met Stalin and I never talked to him,” he writes in his introduction, “But for thirty-five years I lived with this man, day and night, voluntarily and involuntarily, thinking about him and knowing that my destiny depended on him and his personal reasoning.”

    In The Red Monarch, combines historical fact and personal imagination to create a series of set pieces, each depicting an incident involving someone confronting Stalin at the height of his powers. The first date from the middle of the Second World War; the last deal with his death and its aftermath.

    The famines, the first waves of the Great Terror, the show trials and the worst days of the German invasion are all behind him at this stage. Everyone who deals with Stalin–including men like Beria and Vlasek, who control much of the terror system and know the worst that it has carried out–come into his presence a bit like a lowly feeder into the cage of a great lion with violent instincts and hair-trigger reactions.

    Krotkov does a marvelous job of conveying the ambient sense of terror that could turn a conversation about something as mundane as a pair of slippers into a veiled threat of being sent off to a firing squad or the gulag:

    “And what is that on your feet, Comrade Shaposhnikov?”
    “Night shoes … my wife brought them from Leningrad … as a gift.”
    “Ah, that’s what they are … slippers.”
    “No, Josif Vissarionovich, they are not slippers,” Shaposhnikov corrected Stalin, “they are night shoes. Slippers usually have no backs, but these …”
    “No, Comrade Shaposhnikov, they are slippers, slippers.” Stalin repeated stubbornly, “and do not argue with me.”
    “So they are slippers …”
    “If I say they are slippers, Comrade Shaposhnikov, that means they are slippers. Right?”

    But it is not enough to prove that night shoes can only be slippers. Stalin must draw out the most insidious intent from them:

    “When she gave me these night shoes …”
    “Slippers, slippers!”
    “… she said, ‘Wear these in good health, so you will be comfortable when you are on guard, and so there will be no unnecessary noise when you walk up to Comrade Stalin at night to cover him or fix his pillow.”
    “Thank your wife, Comrade Shaposhnikov, for her double consideration, for you and for me. How was it that Seraphima put it: ‘So that there will be no unnecessary noise when you walk up to him at night….’ Interesting. What had your wife in mind, Comrade Shaposhnikov?”
    “Felt absorbs noise. That is, in these … slippers, it is possible to come up to a person and he will not hear you.”
    “Will not?”
    Stalin’s mustache twitched slightly and his right eye suddenly squinted. But Shaposhnikov did not notice this.
    “You said, Comrade Shaposhnikov, that it is possible to come up to a person so that he will not even suspect it. Is that not so?”
    “That is so,” Shaposhnikov answered.
    “In other words, in these slippers it’s possible, in your view, to come up to a person from behind and kill him during his sleep. And, in your view, it’s quite easy to do. Right?”

    Krotkov’s Stalin is almost feline in his pleasure in toying with his victims as they lay before him, paralyzed with terror. In a number of the episodes, he lets the victim go, confident that he can repeat the torture at a moment’s notice.

    Krotkov, a writer with KGB links who defected to the West while in the UK on a tour in 1963, grew up in Georgia and had many Georgian friends, including the actor Mikhail Gelovani, who played Stalin in numerous films such as The Fall of Berlin. This gave him an advantage in portraying Stalin, and the book includes several pieces focusing on Stalin’s relationships with Georgian colleagues and friends–which were even more complicated than those with Russians. Even Gelovani features in a chapter titled, “The Two Stalins,” in which Stalin repeatedly teases the actor: should he be praised for the accuracy of his portrayal? Or attacked for caricaturing Stalin?

    I’ve read a fair number of books about Stalin and the Soviet era, such as Orlando Figes’ Stalin: The Court of the Red Tsar, but The Red Monarch impresses me as the most succinct summation of the bizarre web of intrigue and fear that Stalin was able to create around him. It’s sharp as a razor, and like a razor, not to be picked up without due care and respect. I recommend it, as well as The Nobel Prize, Krotkov’s similar mediation of the experiences of Boris Pasternak following the international acclaim of Doctor Zhivago.

    The Red Monarch: Scenes from the Life of Stalin, by Yuri Krotkov
    New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1979

    My Life with George: An Unconventional Autobiography, by I. A. R. Wylie

    Cover of first US edition of 'My Life with George'I. A. R. Wylie subtitled her book, My Life with George, “An Unconventional Autobiography,” and the adjective was appropriate in more than one way. George, she tells us in an opening paragraph, is that “factotum … known to the general public as our subconscious.” Given the Gay Old Nineties illustration on the book’s dust jacket and the sly reference to Clarence Day’s then-recent best-seller, Life With Father, it appears that Wylie and/or her publisher were playing a little joke on buyers, who probably assumed George was some character from the author’s past.

    But Wylie’s title is also appropriate because her life itself was unconventional, particularly by the standards of the America and England of 1940. Aside from a few years in a boarding school in Brussels, she was largely self-educated, and she was certainly largely independent from an early age. She pedalled her way back to London from a family holiday at the seaside when she was just ten years old, spending a night along the way.

    This trip was, in fact, her father’s suggestion, and he was the first reason her life was so unusual. Alec Wylie was, if his daughter’s account is accurate, a volatile and manic personality, who managed to flout Victorian conventions by a combination of charm, luck, and the kindness of strangers:

    From the day of his birth to the hour of his death he never had a penny that he could legitimately call his own. If by some strange chance he had earned it, he already owed it several times over, and it was only an additional reason for borrowing more. Quite often he didn’t have a penny of any sort, and there were days in our large absurd house in London when there was no food for anyone except the bailiff occupying our one completely furnished room. But in the nick of time Father would run into some fine fellow who understood his situation perfectly, and we would be in funds again. The bailiff would be wined and dined and sent on his way rejoicing and proud to know us, and the furniture vans would begin to arrive with expensive, unpaid-for furniture–quite awful stuff because Alec’s taste was Victorian in its last most ponderous convulsions.

    Ida–named quite literally after her parents, Ida Ross and Alec Wylie–was born in Melbourne, Australia in 1885, the first child of Wylie’s second marriage. Having married, and fathered two children, he divorced his wife and fled England with creditors at his heels, pausing only to propose to his ex-wife’s sister Christine on the way to the docks. He sweet-talked his way into a marriage with Ida Ross, the sad and plain daughter of a wealthy businessman, but quickly grew bored in Australia. On the pretext of pursuing a law case in England involving his father-in-law’s firm, he cashed in the return tickets for luxury-class one-way fares and took his wife and newborn daughter back to London.
    Alec Wylie, father of Ida Alexa Ross Wylie
    Alec resumed his erratic affairs in London and his wife soon wasted away and died, knowing she would never see Australia again. Fortunately for young Ida, though, not before striking up a deep friendship with Christine, the woman Alec had once tried to marry. In an extraordinary example of loyalty, Christine took on the primary responsibility for making sure that Ida was clothed, fed and cared for, despite the vagaries of Alec’s fortunes, until the girl was in her late teens. Christine was just the first of a line of women who proved far stronger and more reliable than any man in Ida’s life.

    This life was also unconventional for its time because Wylie’s precocious independence didn’t stop with solo bicycle rides. Having spent many hours playing by herself and filling the time by making up her own stories, she took easily to writing fiction, and, at the age of 19, sold the first short story she sent off to a magazine editor. From that point on, she was able to support herself–and eventually, Christine as well–as a writer.

    She did it, in part, because she was always driven by a pragmatism that may have been a reaction to her father’s fantastic behavior. Rooming with another young English woman who had been raised in colonial India, she wrote and sold several stories based her roommate’s recollections: “At the end of my first year Esme rejoined her parents in India but she left behind her enough sahibs, memsahibs, Bo-trees, ayahs and compounds to furnish me with all the necessary ingredients for an Anglo-Indian novel which I wrote when I was twenty-one.” She went on to write at least five books based in India–The Native Born, or, The Rajah’s People (1910); The Daughter of Brahma (1913); Tristram Sahib (1915); The Temple of Dawn (1915); and The Hermit Doctor of Gaya (1916).

    Along with her tales of faux India, Wylie also had considerable success with a series of books based on her experiences of living in Germany in her early twenties: My German Year (1910); Rambles in the Black Forest (1911); and The Germans (1911). Although she returned to England in 1911, she kept in touch with German friends and tried to offer a more balanced view of the German people against the jingoism of British propaganda during World War One. Her novel, Towards Morning (1918), was perhaps the first in English to suggest that not all Germans were evil imperialists (one character is shot for cowardice after refusing to take part in a particularly vicious attack).

    In England, Wylie continued to go against the tides of convention by joining the Suffragette movement and providing a safe house where women who had been released from prison to recover from their hunger strikes were smuggled away from police surveillance. As she tells in the book, one of her allies in this effort was another young Englishwoman named Rachel.

    After the war, Wylie and Rachel travel to the U.S., where Wylie’s books and stories have enjoyed commercial success. Despite having no driving experience, they buy a car and spend over a year travelling all over the country, from New York City to San Francisco and southern California. Wylie has her first encounter with Hollywood, which had already begun to mine her catalog for stories. Unfortunately, she was hired as a color consultant for “Stronger Than Death”, based on her Anglo-Indian novel, The Hermit Doctor of Gaya, and had to confess that she’d never actually been to India.

    That didn’t keep the studios from continuing to hire Wylie. Over thirty movies made between 1915 and 1953 were based on her works, including “Torch Song” and “Phone Call from a Stranger”, which feature great scenery-chewing performances by Joan Crawford and Bette Davis, respectively. Her story, “Grandmother Bernle Learns Her Letters,” published in the Saturday Evening Post in 1926, was filmed twice–by John Ford in 1928 and by Archie Mayo in 1940, both times for Fox. Ford called “Grandma Bernie,” which portrays the four sonds of a German family divided between sides in the First World War, “first really good story” he ever filmed. The best-known film made from her work is probably “Keeper of the Flame” (1942), which is usually remembered as the one non-comedy that Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn made together.

    Anyone reading My Life with George today will have no trouble identifying one unconventional aspect of Wylie’s life: her sexuality. She mentions a number of women with whom she spends time and shares homes, although she never even remotely suggests any physical aspect of these relationships. She does, however, admit,

    I have always liked women better than men. I am more at ease with them and more amused by them. I too am rather bored by a conventional relationship which seems to involve either my playing up to someone or playing down to someone. Here and there and especially in my latter years when there should be no further danger of my trying to ensnare one of them I have established some real friendships with men in which we meet and like each other on equal terms as human beings. But fortunately, I have never wanted to marry any of them, nor with the exception of that one misguided German Grenadier, have any of them wanted to marry me.

    She also acknowledges that many of her women friends refer to her as “Uncle,” and her choice of being credited as “I. A. R. Wylie” instead of Ida Wylie was certainly an attempt to downplay her gender in publications.

    I. A. R. Wylie, around 1940Somewhere in late twenties, Wylie became friends with Josephine Baker, a pioneer in the field of public health. The first director of New York’s Bureau of Child Hygiene, Baker had helped locate “Typhoid Mary” and introduced the first programs of publically-funded pre- and post-natal care in the country. Neither Baker nor Wylie ever declared themselves openly as lesbians, but according to Dr. Bert Hansen’s article, “Public Careers and Private Sexuality: Some Gay and Lesbian Lives in the History of Medicine and Public Health”, the two women were partners.

    When Baker retired in the mid-1930s, she, Wylie, and another pioneering female physician, Dr. Louise Pearce, bought Trevenna Farm, outside Skillman, New Jersey, and lived there together. Baker died in 1945; Pearce and Wylie in 1959. The farm, coincidentally, went up for sale again recently.

    The literary merit of My Life with George diminishes as the book goes on, though. With all the events of her young life and her own ironic commentary, the first two thirds is terrific. It’s fast, funny and vibrant demonstration of how resilient some children can be in the face of staggering adult neglect.

    After her first circuit of the U.S. with Rachel, however, Wylie loses focus. Editorial opinions are poor substitutes for first-hand observations even when fresh–and they don’t stay fresh long: “I would wise with all my heart that in the coming struggle between Good and Evil–for me it amounts to that–America would stand full-armed, shoulder to shoulder with nations who for all their shortcomings are the defenders of civilization against barbarism.” The last book staggers through its last 50-60 pages loaded down with such baggage.

    Aside from direct-to-print copies of her works now in public domain and a couple of library reissues, Wylie has not had a book in print since the early 1960s. Her last novel, Claire Serrat, was published in 1959, as was praised by one reviewer as “the book of the month.” Interestingly, Ben Brady used a scenario based on Claire Serrat as the centerpiece for his 1994 book, Principles of Adaptation for Film and Television.

    Locate a copy:

    My Life with George: An Unconventional Autobiography, by I. A. R. Wylie
    New York City: Random House, 1940

    Uncover a Classic in Hesperus Press’ Competition

    The Hesperus Press, a London-based small press, is celebrating its 10th year in business with a contest in which readers can nominate their candidates for the unknown classic most deserving of reissue.

    The firm, whose Hesperus Classics series specializes in reissues of short, lesser-known works by well-known authors (e.g., Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Tragedy of the Korosko or Goethe’s The Man of Fifty)–or lesser-known works by obscure authors (e.g., Two Princesses by Pushkin’s contemporary, Vladimir Odoevsky), asks readers to “Select one out-of-print book you think worthy and explain in no more than 500 words why you love it and why it deserves to be brought back into print.”

    “Your 500 word introduction must be well written and eloquent, and clearly list the title of the book, author name and when the book was last in print (as far as you are aware).”

    Based on the usual fare of Hesperus Classics, I would add that books that are under 200 pages, in the public domain, and have been out of print for at least 25-30 years will stand a better chance of being selected.

    Email or post your written entry to [email protected] by the 1st of June 2012.

    The detailed rules can be found at http://www.hesperuspress.com/Web/pages/competition.aspx.

    Log Book, by Frank Laskier

    This slim book–just 119 pages–contains some of the simplest and most powerful writing I’ve come across in a long time. And at the same time, it’s something of a mystery.

    Born and raised in a house just up the street from the Liverpool waterfront, Frank Laskier ran away to sea when just fifteen. Shifting from ship to ship–many of them tramp steamers whose conditions resembled those of B. Traven’s The Death Ship–he spent most of the next dozen years as a merchant seamen. Aside from a short stint when he tried life ashore and ended up in jail for burglary, he spent much of the time filthy and miserable at sea or drunk and violent in port.

    Then, sometime in late 1940, his ship, Eurylochus, was attacked and sunk by an merchant raider, the Komoran, off the coast of West Africa. Laskier’s foot was blown off by a shell, and he and the other thirteen survivors spent three days adrift in a life raft before being rescued by a Spanish trawler. He was eventually repatriated to the UK, where he idled away his days in a pub until a young BBC radio producer overheard him regaling some friends with a story. The producer thought him a natural radio personality and convinced Laskier to record an account of the attack and his rescue.

    The piece proved immensely popular with wartime listeners and Laskier went on to write and broadcast more talks over the next year. These were collected as My Name is Frank. Of the book, a reviewer in the Spectator wrote:

    Frank Laskier’s broadcasts had the stuff of greatness; put into print they lose nothing in the reading. By a natural genius this seaman has found an expression and a rhythm which the poets and artists of the modern world have been striving after for generations.

    Although a genuine article, Laskier did allow himself to be used for maximum propaganda effect. In The Merchant Seamen’s War, Tony Lane refers to him as a Stakhanov–the Russian coal miner made a worker’s hero by Soviet propagandists. Laskier appeared in several films, encouraging others to join the Merchant Marine. You can see a preview of one at the British Pathé website.

    Cover of the U.S. edition of 'Log Book'A year or so later, Laskier published Log Book. The book is clearly an autobiography, as the story follows his own exactly. But, for some unexplained reason, Laskier chose to call himself Jack in the book, and to treat the story as fiction, avoiding most references to specific times and places.

    The book suffers not at all by this choice–indeed, it may gain in power, as it thereby allows the writing to stand on its own.

    And what writing it is. Reviewing the book in the New York Herald Tribune. Lincoln Colcord called it, “a work of art so simple and acute, that one often pauses to wonder. Here, for example, is Laskier’s description of the return from liberty of a hand who had watched his own brother fall and smash his skull on the deck a few days before:

    Outside, beyond the pool of light over the gangway, the stand-by man and Jack could hear a man stumlbing along. He seemed to be having an hysterical argument with somebody. It was the donkey-man–still in his engine-room clothes–as he had gone down the gangway for a quick one. His face, as he came under the light, looked blotched, and red and swollen. He stopped at the quayside and looked up at the ship; a big, grimy figure, gazing up the gangway to the faces of the man and boy–then passing to the outlines of the ship. “You dirty, hungry, lousy bastard! You stinking, bloody old death trap.” His voice rose to a scream: “You … you death ship! Hey, boy, call the bosun–and tell him to come ashore and meet the bloody Madam.” He stood there swaying, and they could see the sweat slowly trickle down his face. Or was it tears–dead bosun was his brother. The stand-by man stood at the tope of the ladder. “Come aboard,” he said, “come up now mate and get some kip.” The donkey-man looked up at him, then he slowly started to crawl up the ladder. Up and up, dragging one foot after the other. his gnarled hands gripping the rail. Up and up, away from the land, away from the whores, and away from himself. He was all the Jims, all the sailors. Leaving all the sordidness and filth of the land–leaving that land–crossing that silent, inviting strip of water–stepping into a new world. One board, the ghost of his brother waited to lead him gently to his bunk. His footsteps rang hollowly as he slumped along the darkness of the deck and vanished into the fo’castle.

    There are dozens of such passages throughout the book. I counted over twenty pages I’d dog-eared while reading it.

    Laskier was thirty years old when he wrote Log Book, but his voice and perspective are those of a man of long and hard experience. After years of whoring, drinking and fighting, a year in Borstal and another in Nottingham prison, he finally experiences an epiphany one night when he takes a break to go on deck as his ship steams through the Bay of Biscay:

    His old friends the porpoises came out and did their set of lancers in front of the bows. He could hear the rustle and swish of their bodies as they surfaced. And the gentle plop as they submerged. The sea, the sky, the moon and the stars–in unison–told him of the glorious heritage of beauty that belongs to the sailor. They would forgive him all, so long as he was worthy of them and could feel their beauty.

    His personal peace is short-lived, those, as the Second World War breaks out shortly after he reaches port. He signs on with another ship and is soon convoying a load of Britsh children to Canada. On the return voyage, the old freighter’s engines fail to keep speed and the ship is forced to fall out and make its way back to Liverpool alone–a nervous week of scanning the surrounding waters for signs of U-boats.

    The ship’s end comes, however, not in the bitter, rough North Atlantic but on a calm evening, as “Phosphorus gleamed in the wake of the ship, pale green; long, beautiful streaks of cold fire.” The attack comes abruptly, with great noise, fire, explosions, and is over in just two pages, as Jack throws himself into the water, not realizing his foot is gone. He and the few survivors endure three days, exposed, with no water and sharks constantly circling and scraping against their raft.

    They have the good fortune to be rescued by a passing trawler and, later, by a Royal Navy ship, and Laskier and his shipmates are evacuated to a hospital ship anchored in Freetown, Sierra Leone. The book ends with Jack back in the UK, and, like Laskier, discovered by the BBC and speaking for the first time on the radio.

    Despite the enthusiastic critical reception of Log Book and My Name is Frank, Laskier was quickly forgotten when his propaganda value had faded. He moved to the US and tried to get the movie studios interested in his stories. His first genuine novel, Unseen Harbor, was published in 1947, but received little notice. He died less than a year later, the victim of an automobile accident.

    Log Book, by Frank Laskier
    London: George Allen & Unwin, 1942
    New York City: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943

    The First Bus Out, by Eugene Löhrke

    One by one, an assortment of characters enter a bus station from the darkness of an early morning, and purchase tickets for their destinations: Bronxville, Greenwich, Siracusa, Salzburg, Washington, D.C. and the Newark airport. “The first bus out,” the ticket agent tells them.

    This is the first tip-off that Eugene Löhrke’s 1935 novel, The First Bus Out, is not about the usual bus trip.

    All the travellers climb up the rear entrance when the bus finally pulls in, and pile into seats in the back. Surrounded by fog and drizzle, with nothing but an occasional street light or the vague outline of buildings or hills, the bus seems to be lost in a world unto itself. “Thick shadows, gray and black, muffled the painted steel-arch of the ceiling like a dense upholstery. Rapt eyes gazed straight ahead at the blank, dull windshield or out of the leaden windows, seizing casually on each recognizable fragment of landmark, dropping it into the deep soothing vacuum of inertia and speed.”

    It doesn’t take long, of course, to figure out what’s going on. The only way all these people could travel on a bus that would need to hit all points on the compass is if they’re really headed for the same destination. Löhrke was not the first to come up with this premise. Sutton Vane’s 1923 play, “Outward Bound,”, brought seven people together in the lounge of an ocean liner, and discover eventually that they’re in the waiting room for Heaven and Hell. It’s also a situation that allowed the writers of “Lost” to work their way out of the convoluted web of concidences they’d spent six seasons weaving.

    To Löhrke’s credit, the gimmicks stop as soon as his cast is on board the bus. For the next two hundred pages, we wander through their thoughts, learning a little–but not too much–about them. Mrs. William Godfrey Horton, an imperious dowager who treats the meek Mrs. Harold Strong sitting beside her with contempt, turns out to have only transformed her drunken, abusive and unfaithful husband into the pillar of virtue she wanted when he did her the favor of dying. Myron Baxter, a liberal writer, comes to realize he has nothing to offer the masses he’s spent his time trying to lead into revolt. The only passenger who seems to have no regrets or misgivings is Schiavoni, a Mafia hitman with a gun nestled inside his jacket.

    Every once in a while, one of them notices the white, terrified face of a young girl who rises up from behind the driver to scream, but the sound never penetrates his stream of thoughts.

    And that’s all that happens, essentially. At the very end, we do follow the thoughts of Mr. Mole, a sad and lonely physics professor, in the last moments as he commits suicide and finds himself back at the beginning, waiting in the bus station. Oddly, however, the lack of action does nothing to detract from book’s enjoyment. Löhrke creates a mosaic from bits of memories from each character, but his touch is usually light and subtle and no one comes to any dramatic realization. The truth is always a little hard to bring into focus, much like the landscape seen through the bus’s window.

    Taking a note from Graham Greene, I would class The First Bus Out as an entertainment rather than a novel. For me, it offered a couple evenings’ worth of interesting reading and belongs in a class with Herbert Clyde Lewis’ elegant and grimly comic Gentleman Overboard.

    Löhrke was a veteran of World War One who’d worked as a newspaper reporter and translator when he took up fiction in the early 1930s. He wrote a total of four novels, but when he and his wife moved to England in the late 1930s, he focused on nonfiction, writing several books that dealt with events just before and after the outbreak of World War Two. It appears that his health was damaged during duty with the U.S. Army during the war, as he published little afterwards and died at the age of 56 in 1953.

    The First Bus Out, by Eugene Löhrke
    New York and London: D. Appleton-Century Company, 1935

    My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson by George Thompson

    If you’re in the mood for some cheap–heck, free–lowbrow reading, I can recommend George Thompson’s brief autobiography, My Life: or the Adventures of Geo. Thompson, which you can find at Project Gutenberg and the Internet Archive. Thompson offers up a double murder plus suicide, blackmail, robbery, gambling, teenage drunkenness, prostitution, child abuse, and adultery–and that’s just in the first three chapters.

    George Thompson’s name won’t be found in too many histories of American literature. That’s because his claim to fame was as perhaps our country’s first great writers of trash. Thompson wrote dozens, maybe hundreds of works with such titles as Venus in Boston, The Gay Girls of New-York, The Mysteries of Bond Street, Adventures of a Sofa, and The Amorous Adventures of Lola Montes, which were as popular and pandering in their day as, say, “Jersey Shore” or “Date My Ex” are today. As David S. Reynolds puts it in an entry on “Sensational Fiction”, “Among the kinds of sexual activity Thompson depicts are adultery, miscegenation, group sex, incest, child sex, and gay sex.” These books were sold by publishers advertising “Rich, Rare and Racy Reading,” and sold for 25 or 50 cents–equivalent to $50 to $100 today, if Internet inflation calculators are reliable.

    No surprise, then, that he lays the melodrama on thick when it comes to telling his own life’s story. He runs away from home after knocking his uncle down a staircase and quickly meets up with one Jack Slack, a thief and swell barely older than him, who proceeds to introduce Thompson to beer and champagne. Before the night is over, they’ve met up with a prostitute and fallen into a card game. “What wonder is it that I became a reckless, dissipated individual, careless of myself, my interests, my fame and fortune?,” Thompson reflects.

    Methinks he doth protest too much.

    He gets a job working as a printer’s apprentice, but the work is, of course, merely the pretext for introducing us into the tangled affairs of the printer and his wife, both of whom are cheating on the other. This soon leads to one of the book’s many dramatic climaxes, as the enraged husband offers the wife one final choice:

    With these words, Romaine cocked his pistol and approached his wife, saying, in a low, savage tone that evinced the desperate purpose of his heart—

    “Take your choice, madam; do you prefer to die by lead or by steel?”

    The miserable woman threw herself upon her knees, exclaiming—

    “Mercy, husband—mercy! Do not kill me, for I am not prepared to die!”

    “You call me husband now—you, who have so long refused to receive me as a husband. Come—I am impatient to shed your blood, and that of your paramour. Breathe a short prayer to Heaven, for mercy and forgiveness, and then resign your body to death and your soul to eternity!”

    So saying the desperate and half-crazy man raised on high the glittering knife. Poor Mrs. Romaine uttered a shriek, and, before she could repeat it, the knife descended with the swiftness of lightning, and penetrated her heart. Her blood spouted all over her white dress, and she sank down at the murderer’s feet, a lifeless corpse!

    Now that experience would have been enough for a lifetime for most folks, but it’s just the beginning in Thompson’s case.

    Eventually, after a detour into acting, a jail break, a few dozen romantic entanglements and enough other scandals that one soon gives up keeping track, Thompson decides to head to the peace and civility of Brahmin Boston. Oddly, however, for a man who made his fortune on telling other people’s secrets, Thompson took great offense at the prying nature of Bostonians:

    A stranger goes among them, and forthwith inquisitive whispers concerning him begin to float about like feathers in the air. “Who is he? What is he? Where did he come from? What’s his business? Has he got any money? (Great emphasis is laid on this question.) Is he married, or single? What are his habits? Is he a temperance man? Does he smoke—does he drink—does he chew? Does he go to meeting on Sundays? What religious denomination does he belong to? What are his politics? Does he use profane language? What time does he go to bed—and what time does he get up? Wonder what he had for dinner to-day?” &c., &c., &c.

    Thompson spends just one year in Boston before heading back to the fleshpots of New York, which is where the book comes to an end. Not, however, before he has a chance to swear that “not one single word of fiction or exaggeration has been introduced into these pages.”

    And I am Marie of Roumania.

    My Life; or The Adventures of George Thompson, Being the Autobiography of an Author
    Boston: Federhen, 1854

    Invasion, by Maxence van der Meersch

    I ordered a copy of Maxence van der Meersch’s 700-page novel, Invasion, after reading Tom Leonard’s review of the book on Amazon, but having recently devoted a considerable amount of time to another very long–but very great–novel (Fortunata and Jacinta), I intended to stow it away in the nightstand for later.

    I sat down to read a few pages to get a sense of the book. An hour later, I was on page 50 and committed to finish it.

    Invasion (originally titled Invasion 14 in French) would not, at first glance, seem the sort of book that can pull you in and make you want to stay. Set in Roubaix, a French industrial town just a few miles from the border with Belgium, Invasion is the record of over four years’ occupation by the German army as experienced by dozens of the local inhabitants. Even on a good day, Roubaix is a pretty grim place: a town of mills and mines, full of streets of grey shuttered houses, much of the year under a grey a dreary sky. Trapped behind German lines, the people of the town had no choice but to remain, but today’s reader is free to leave their story gathering dust on the shelf.

    However, Van der Meersch’s style (in translation, at least) is simple and immediately accessible, like Tolstoy’s, and like the great master, he has a viewpoint that seems able to get inside the head and heart of any character. In the course of the novel, Van der Meersch follows dozens of the town’s residents, from wealthy mill owners to shopkeepers and farmers to petty criminals and little children. As with a Russian novel, there are times when one gets lost in the flurry of names (I kept confusing the Fontcroix with the Laubigiers).

    Yet despite the bleakness of the novel’s setting and subject and the constant shifting from character to character, Van der Meersch maintains a remarkable level of narrative tension. Put any group of people in an extreme situation and their responses will vary widely. This has been a basic formula of story-tellers for millenia. But in this case, the strain seems to increase relentlessly. No one–not even the Germans–expects the occupation to wear on for months and then years. The faint, muffled sound of shelling–the front is never more than twenty miles away–goes on and on, and the sense of hopelessness grinds away at even the strongest.

    The Laubigiers, an ordinary working class family, for example, offer shelter to three French soldiers separated from their unit in the first retreat. It’s a simple gesture of charity in response to a request from the local priest. Civilian clothes and forged papers are arranged to aid their escape. But then the time wears on:

    For the first few weeks an atmosphere of mutual toleration prevailed, but then a certain amount of friction began to develop. The men were bound to the Laubigiers by no real ties, and became irritable under pressure of forced seclusion. Their minds turned to their own people, and the necessity of learning new trades in order to keep themselves occupied and to earn enough to pay for their keep, of becoming cobblers, harness-makers, and chair-menders, began to get on their nerves. Quarrels started. Disputes arose over the sharing of coal and food. The carelessness and messiness of her three lodgers did violence to Félicie’s naturally tidy nature.

    “Seen in its stark reality,” van der Meersch concludes, “the situation was one in which a group of people remained bound together by necessity, while all the time they grew daily to hate one another more and more violently.”

    One reason I was interested in Invasion is that I wanted to explore the effects of a prolonged occupation on a people. Twice in the course of thirty years, the people of Belgium, where I live now, and parts of France, lived for years under the rule of an occupying power. This is an experience unknown in American history, and I have a theory that this is one reason why people in this part of Europe view good and evil as lying along a spectrum of infinitely subtle gradations and no clear-cut distinctions.

    In the first months of the occupation, a few in the town display true heroism. A priest and a local schoolteacher manage to produce a newsheet telling about local incidents of German brutality and calling for resistance. A mill owner rallies his workers to refuse to make cloth for German uniforms. But they are all soon rounded up and shot, imprisoned or sent off to forced labor. Even the rich find their possessions confiscated and their savings eaten away by black market prices.

    Some collaborate quickly and with little sense of guilt. Others give in only when their means or willpower have been exhausted. Some develop genuine friendships, as the Laubigiers do for a German cook billeted with them, that inevitably come with complications that verge or veer into collaboration.

    By the time the severe winter of 1917-18 comes around, the hardships have worn away almost all sense of hope and dignity. The extent to which the experience leads inevitably to self-destruction is symbolized by peoples’ pillaging of their own homes:

    Gradually, and rather fearfully, folk began to remove the banisters from staircases, trap-doors from lofts, everything that was of no immediate, or only of secondary, use. Boards were taken from the backs of cupboards, shelves for keeping food fresh in the cellars, doors and woodwork from lavatories, the seats themselves, the roofs. A futher step involved the shutters of windows, rabbit hutches, tool-sheds, coal boxes. After a further week or two the doors of the rooms had to go, attic floors, gutters, and drain pips. Finally, life came to be lived in the strangest apologies for houses, bare walls open to the air, with a mattress of the ground and a fire in one corner.

    The occupation does end, however. Two hours after the last German leaves, the English arrive, and the retribution begins almost as soon as the celebrations. “Realizing that life in France would be impossible for them,” women who have taken German lovers “made up their minds to see whether they could not start afresh in Germany.” When they catch up with retreating troops, though, they are sent back to be branded and beaten.

    The men, on the other hand, soon reach “a sort of tacit agreement to cease fire…. It was very much better to form a mutual admiration society than to rake up uncomfortable truths and start hitting blindly at the expense of all and sundry.” “Those who stumbled on the truth,” writes van der Meersch, “took fright and avoided it like poison.”

    A native of Roubaix, van der Meersch was just seven years old when the German occupation began, but his novel is informed by a rich network of friends, relatives and neighbors and years of hearing their recollections. Trained as a lawyer, his advice was often sought out even though he never actually practiced. The historian Richard Cobb, who met van der Meersch when he was evacuated to Roubaix as an internee during the German occupation of 1940-44, described the novelist as “the magician who had pulled the front off so many corons [villages], to introduce me, de plein pied, into the kitchen and the smell of coffee and boiling potatoes.”

    In an essay in his book, Paris and Elsewhere–reissued as a New York Review Classic–Cobb calls van der Meersch “a regionalist who had written almost exclusively about Roubaix and who had brought honour to the town by winning the Prix Goncourt. He was, in fact, a clumsy stylist, a Christian-Socialist Zola, who wrote off an accumulated stock of fiches [files].” Invasion does, at times, give the sense of being an accumulation of fiches–primarily because no single character dominates the narrative.

    Van der Meersch wrote around a dozen novels, all of them set in and around Roubaix, in the space of about as many years. He was 27 when Invasion was published, and two years later he won the Prix Goncourt for L’Empreinte du dieu, translated into English as Hath Not the Potter. By the time Cobb met him, “He was tubercular and had fallen under the influence of a medical eccentric who preached under-nourishment as a cure for tuberculosis; his most recent novel [Corps et âmes, translated as Bodies and Souls] was an attack on orthodox medicine.” He died of the disease in 1951 at the age of 43. Although several of his novels are still in print in France, as well as Spain and Germany (not Invasion, understandably), his work has largely been forgotten by English readers.

    Invasion, by Maxence van der Meersch, translated by Gerard Hopkins
    New York: Viking Press, 1937

    Quin’s Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore

    Cover of first US edition of 'Quin's Shanghai Circus'I first read Quin’s Shanghai Circus around my freshman year in college, when I was hot off devouring the whole series of Vonnegut’s novels in their Dell paperback editions. I found a used copy of the Popular Library paperback edition of Circus and was convinced to buy it from the first three sentences alone:

    Some twenty years after the end of the war with Japan a freighter arrived in Brooklyn with the largest collection of Japanese pornography ever assembled in a Western tongue. The owner of the collection, a huge, smiling fat man named Geraty, presented a passport to customs that showed he was a native-born American about as old as the century, an exile who had left the United States nearly four decades before. The collection contained all the pornographic works written in Japan during the last three hundred and fifty years, or since the time when Japan first closed itself to the West.

    I took the book straight home and proceeded to read it in the space of about two days. It was wild, complicated and constantly over the top in its details: Geraty’s penchant for stuffing gobs of wasabi up his nose; Baron Kikuchi, the Japanese aristocrat and spymaster who could sleep with his glass eye open, making others believe he had superhuman powers of concentration; Father Lamereaux, the pederast priest; the horrifying account of the Japanese army’s atrocities in its rape of Nanking. Whittemore made Vonnegut seem tame in comparison. The book remained in my memory as one of my most intense reading experiences and that paperback has traveled with me through a dozen moves since then.

    So it was on my books to devote a long post to when I started working on this site. I felt certain I would be offering up a wonderful box of treasures in bringing it to light again.

    I was wrong–others had already written posts about it, even before I started the site: Jeff Van Der Meer on the SF Site in 2002; the late Bob Sabella on his Visions of Paradise blog in 2005. Others followed thereafter: Dan Schmidt on his Dfan blog in 2009, Chad Hull on his Fiction is Overrated blog in 2010. And it turned out that a small press, Old Earth Books, had reissued Circus, along with the four books in Whittemore’s subsequent Jerusalem Dreaming quartet, with an introduction by novelist John Nichols, in 2002.

    Still, with such a vivid memory of the book, I knew I had to give it a second reading.

    Ah, there are some experiences best left in memory.

    Quin’s Shanghai Circus is, without a doubt, an impressive work of story-telling. Although the novel is set mostly in Japan and China, Whittemore’s approach more resembles the intricacies of the most ornate Islamic scripts, in which one wonders how anyone could manage to unravel a text from the twists and coils and overlapping strokes. It’s not surprising that he shifted his setting to the Middle East after this book.

    According to his biographies, Whittemore spent some years working in the Far East for the CIA. Doing just what is never revealed. Personally, I find the fact that he let this be mentioned revealing. From my experience, people who consider themselves espionage professionals are exceptionally tight-lipped and discreet. There’s a joke in the DC area that you can always tell that someone works for the CIA when they respond, “I work for the government,” to questions about what they do for a living.

    On the other hand, I’ve run into ex-GIs who weave elaborate accounts of their “black ops” days, who describe suitcases full of cash and unbelievably precise surveillance technology, who seem to have inhabited a world where everyone was on the take and nothing was as it seemed. Personally, I have become a great skeptic of conspiracies and secrecy. If conspiracies were managed as well as they’re usually claimed to have been, then it seems to me that the easiest way to solve the world’s problem would be to make everything a conspiracy. Do we really save our most extraordinary ingenuity and very best organizational skills for conspiracies, making do with second-best for everything else in life?

    Which leads me to suspect that Whittemore was only a very accomplished version of those ex-GIs whose bullshitting verged on the rococo. Reading Quin’s Shanghai Circus as a middle-aged father and mortgage-payer was a considerably different experience than it was when I was a virgin teenager. Today, the book seems to belong with what I call the Playboy Magazine school of fiction.

    Back in the days when men would claim that they read Playboy for the writing, there was a certain type of brittle sophistication to the stories it would publish. Brittle like the magazine itself, for poke through the ads for Scotch and cigarettes and English sportscars, and you would find each month’s installment of Little Annie Fanny.

    Probably a big reason I thought better of Quin’s Shanghai Circus in recollection was Whittemore’s graphic description of the horrors of the assault on Nanking (you can find a long excerpt in Jason Lundberg’s post on the book). It is so brutal, it has the effect of giving the rest of the novel a solid base of seriousness. But reading it for second time, I found the passage more offensive in its use than in its contents. To be honest, it seemed to have been included more for its shock value than for its function in developing the story, and I questioned Whittemore’s right to appropriate the event for what would otherwise be just an entertainment (here I’m appropriating Greene’s use of the term).

    I’m sure that not everyone would have the same reaction to the novel or Whittemore’s other works. At least one thesis (“Opening the Window to Edward Whittemore: Systems that Govern Human Experience”, by Joseph Winland, Jr.) has been published, and more will probably follow. Anne Sydenham has created a website, Jerusalem Dreaming, devoted to his work. There you will find numerous expressions of praise, including this quote from Tom Robbins: “One of the best-kept secrets in American literature, the novels of the mysterious Edward Whittemore are like bowls of hashish pudding: rich, dark, tasty, amusing, intoxicating, revelatory, a little bit outlandish and a little bit unsafe.”

    All I can say is: if a bowl hashish pudding sounds good to you, go right ahead and dig in. Don’t let me stop you.

    Quin’s Shanghai Circus, by Edward Whittemore
    New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1974

    Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig

    Cover of first US edition of 'Young Woman of 1914'Young Woman of 1914 (1931) is the first in narrative order and the second in order of publication of Arnold Zweig’s tetralogy of the First World War (the others are The Case of Sergeant Grischa (1927), Education before Verdun (1935) and The Crowning of a King (1937)). Calling this a tetralogy, however, should not imply that there are such strong links among the books that they need to be read in sequence or even in totality. Aside from the character of the writer and draftee Werner Bertin–a major character in this novel and a supporting one in the others–and a few other minor characters and events, the common bond among the books is one of context, not content.

    The young woman of the title is Leonore Wahl, the daughter of a successful Jewish banker in Berlin, university student and eager follower of the intellectual radicals of her time. She meets and has an affair with Werner Bertin, a rising young writer of a more modest family. I hesitate to say that she falls in love with Bertin, because although the two develop a relationship that continues when Bertin is enlisted into the German Army Services Corps and shipped off to a series of postings, Zweig makes it clear that neither is quite ready to put head over heart.

    Until Leonore finds that she is pregnant, that is–or at least, until she deals with this fact. If Young Woman of 1914 is remembered at all today, it is as one of the earliest and frankest accounts of abortion. Given her youth, her situation as a single woman, and her awareness of the weaknesses as well as the strengths of her feelings for Bertin, she decides to have an abortion. Although illegal at the time, safe but surreptitious abortions could be found if one had sufficient funds and guile. With the help of her brother, Leonore locates a doctor who performs the procedure:

    Leonore, outstretched on the examination chair, uttered no more than a sharp gasping moan as she clutched its metal edges. On each side of her a Sister held down her arms and shoulders with dragoon-like fists. The violence of the onslaught almost deprived her of consciousness. Her heart seemed to change into an organ sensitive to pain, and she felt as though it were splitting within her breast; an engulfing surge of torment swept over her forehead and temples.

    “Poor creatures, they always had to pay the bill,” the doctor muses.

    This excerpt gives a sense of the ham-fistedness of Zweig’s style–or at least of Eric Sutton’s translation–that turns the experience of reading his novels into something akin to hiking through thick underbrush. It’s unfortunate, as the basic story here is actually quite modern. When Bertin meets Leonore again, he does feel and express some remorse, but mostly to be seen to care. In truth, what she’s gone through is alien and a little distasteful to him.

    Having seen a little of combat and a great deal of the drudgery and boredom of army life, though, Bertin has a much greater appreciation for the comfort of a loving relationship, and Leonore herself seems prepared at last to find refuge in the tenderness they feel for each other. They decide to marry, if only to postpone Bertin’s quick return to the front. And as she sees him off at the train station, she thinks, “It was none other than love that had come upon her–love that suffers, schemes, creates: just love.”

    I have mixed feelings about this book. It’s full of fine moments, such as a walk Bertin takes through the streets of a Bosnian town while serving on the Balkan front, where Zweig captures the flow of life that goes on despite the big-H history happening all around it. And in the relationship of Leonore and Bertin, he does a good job of conveying the awkwardness of lovers who need to establish an intellectual equality before confronting their real feelings for each other. On the other hand, what would have been a little masterpiece if pared down a to around 150 pages takes Zweig over 380 pages to tell. And this is one of Arnold Zweig’s shortest books! It’s no surprise to discover that he went on to become a key literary figure in East Germany. There is a certain Marx-like windbagishness in his writing. Stefan Zweig–no relation–would have dealt with this in a novella.

    Young Woman of 1914, by Arnold Zweig, translated by Eric Sutton
    London: Martin Secker, 1932

    The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant

    One could almost believe that Balzac wrote The Bachelors (Les Célibataires) in 1834, and not Henri de Montherlant in 1934. There are so many echoes of Balzac in Montherlant’s novels: the squalor of pretentious people falling deeper and deeper into debt; the meanness of relatives turning their backs on the spectacle of poverty; the unquenchable thirst for delusions to shelter one from the bitterness of reality. But it took a 20th century sensibility to take two miserable, useless characters such as the Baron Elie de Coëtquidan and Léon, comte de Coantré, his nephew–a couple of faded aristocrats living on the fumes of long-ago squandered fortunes–and grind them down to squalid, humiliating deaths.

    That hardly makes this sound like a book you’d want to crawl in bed with, I admit, and it might seem crazy to suggest that The Bachelors could hold its own beside some of the best novels of the 19th century. It’s so rich in its characterizations, so full of wonderful details and mannerisms.

    But imagine Dickens without the tiniest hint of sentimentality. Imagine David Copperfield dying cold, sick and hungry along the road to Dover instead of making it to the warmth of his aunt’s house, and you get a sense of how ruthless Montherlant can be toward his characters. “The tragic thing about anxious people is that they always have cause for anxiety,” he observes at one point, which illustrates the kind of cold, scientific objectivity with which he relates these sad, tragic stories.

    What really distinguishes The Bachelors in my mind is that Montherlant manages to be pitiless without becoming cruel, to be grim but not bitter. This is not a satire. Montherlant doesn’t try to skew the story to make a point about the inadequacy of an older generation. This is just an unblinking look at failure. Which also makes it absolutely riveting. The experience of reading The Bachelors is a bit like the old saying about watching a car wreck: “It hurts to look, but you just can’t turn away.”

    The Bachelors was originally translated into English by Thomas McGeevy and published as Lament for the Death of an Upper Class by John Miles in 1935. Terence Kilmartin, who translated several other works by Montherlant, released a second English translation, using a literal translation of the French title, in 1960. I picked up McGeevy’s translation and started it, thinking I’d found a long-forgotten work by Montherlant, until I realized it was actually The Bachelors. I thought McGeevy’s version was pretty good, but Kilmartin’s is far easier to locate, having been reissued several times, by Penguin and Quartet.

    The Bachelors, by Henri de Montherlant, translated by Terence Kilmartin
    London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1960

    New site with podcasts on obscure books and writers: Why I Really Like This Book

    I’ve added a new site to the Links page: Why I Really Like This Book.

    This site is run by Kate Macdonald, an English lecturer at Ghent University and “a lifelong browser in second-hand bookshops.” “Each week,” she writes, “I post a new podcast on a forgotten book that I think deserves new readers. The podcasts last for about 10 minutes, and appear in the feed first thing on a Friday.” The podcasts so far have covered such books as Vern Sneider’s Tea House of the August Moon and an obscure 1941 novella by Colette, Julie de Carneilhan.

    Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale, by Raymond Cousse

    Cover of first French edition of 'Death Sty' (original title, 'Strategie pour deux jambons')Cover of first US edition of 'Death Sty: A Pig's Tale'It would be hard to come up with a worse title for this novel than Death Sty. Regardless of whether it was the translator, Richard Miller, or the publisher, Grove Press, who chose the title, it’s an act of literary sabotage.

    The French title of this 1978 novel by Raymond Cousse is Stratégie pour deux jambons–or, in English, Strategy for Two Hams. Admittedly, that’s still not the most appealing title one could imagine, but it’s certainly more cerebral than visceral, which is more in keeping with the book’s style.

    The full English title–Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale–is, however, a case of truth in advertising, though that’s a bit like saying that KFC should be renamed “Hot Dead Chicken to Go.” This slim book, just 96 pages long, is the interior monologue of a male pig, living in one of the hundreds or thousands of pens in a finishing plant, waiting to be slaughtered.

    But this is not a story of poor beasts being brutalized. The nameless narrator of Death Sty takes a very French approach to his situation. Rather than bemoan his fate, he uses his last hours to work out his raison d’être:

    I am alone now, and all indications are that I will be until the end. Which will not, I can sense, be long in coming. However, I can’t complain. Indeed, do I have any reason to complain? Uneviable as I may find it, is my fate not being shared? I am forced to acknowledge that such comparisons have always somewhat escaped me. And I know some–even humans–who would readily trade places with me.

    The area where I have been installed is sufficient to my needs and answers to my wants. I am unable to tell whether the premises are longer than they are wide, or vice versa. However, I like to think they are at least as wide as they are long. For some reason, the notion of being able to move freely within a square is a comfort to me.

    This is a Stoic pig: “I will be slaughtered following accepted process, and consummatum est.” He does not intend to resist his fate. Instead, he spend much of his time constructing an elaborate mental image of the slaughterhouse, its systems, and the whole process by which his being will be transformed into food and then back again into waste:

    The cycle of alimentation does not proceed only in one direction. If those in high places enjoy our products, can it be denied that we in turn profit from their castoffs, in the form of slops regularly sent down to the base. Any insinuation that these slops fall down of their own accord reveals a low mind. For that matter, there can be no argument about the efforts the authorities are always making to speed up production.

    “One day, I tell myself, your slice of me will be wafted to the 82nd floor, up to the presidency itself,” he thinks, although he cautions himself: “Perhaps that’s bragging a bit too much.”

    Cousse, whose few other works–none of them yet translated into English–reveal a sly satirical bent, manages to be both subversive and cynical in Death Sty. On the one hand, the book takes its place in a long line of works dating back to Swift, Kafka and Orwell, mocking the aspirations of people in an ever-expanding structure of systems and processes. Cousse’ narrator is a happy cog on a great big wheel of commerce. “I am a law-abiding hog,” the pig proclaims proudly. “So long as I control my merchandise, not one iota will be diverted from the legal market.”

    In fact, he dreams of a future when the process will achieve its ultimate level of efficiency: “The time is not far distant when the hog will be able to forgo their assistance and take his factor into his own hands”: “A trajectory without any hitches, completely planned from womb to package.”

    At the same time, Cousse translates Stoicism from the classical past to the technological present. It was Seneca, after all, who wrote that “Man’s ideal state is realized when he has fulfilled the purpose for which he is born.” Cousse’s pig understands and accepts his purpose and derives a sense of peace from it. Indeed, Cousse draws a parallel between the pig and Christ at the Last Supper: “And joining action to words, I add: take, eat, this is my ham; and behold my tripes that are offered for you, and drink my blood before it coagulates, but only grant that we may lay aside our quarrels so that we can offer to the world the image of a body united in its purpose.”

    So, despite its atrocious title, Death Sty turns out to be a work that’s far more likely to be a cause for reflection than revulsion. Those who can get past the cover will discover that rare thing, a mesmerizing philosophical piece.

    I have to thank my colleague, Eric Lièvre, for recommending this book. In France, by the way, Stratégie pour deux jambons has been transformed into a monologue for the stage. You can find a clip from one production at Dailymotion.com.

    Death Sty: A Pig’s Tale, by Raymond Cousse, translated by Richard Miller
    New York City: Grove Press, 1980

    Fortunata and Jacinta, by Benito Perez Galdos: The Greatest Novel You’ve Never Heard of

    Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, by Benito Pérez Galdós is pretty much universally regarded as one of the great novels of the 19th century, the greatest Spanish novel after Don Quixote. Yet it wasn’t translated into English until 1973 and despite having been issued–twice, in different translations (by Lester Clark (1973) and Agnes Moncy Gullón (1986)–as a Penguin Classic, it’s currently out of print in English. Which is why chances are good that you’ve never heard of it.

    Although I’ve had Fortunata and Jacinta on my list of books to feature from the first day I started working on this site, I’ve put it off for years. In part, I wasn’t sure I could do it justice without creating an enormous post that would scare off all but the most dedicated readers. But I was also intimidated by the investment in time the book demands. Although the Gullón translation runs to just over 800 pages, these are dense pages with long lines and small print. In truth, Fortunata and Jacinta is about as long as War and Peace less the essay at the end. And unlike War and Peace, which moves quickly, Fortunata moves at a more relaxed pace. It’s very much a book of Spain, where the day is interrupted by siesta, everyone comes out to stroll the streets after dusk, and suppertime starts at around 10PM. Do not start this novel if you’re not willing to spend at least a few weeks on it.

    Writing about Fortunata in the PEN blog, contemporary Spanish novelist Antonio Muñoz Molina captures the commitment the book demands:

    You live in it. You move into it. You inhabit it. You get accustomed to it. It becomes part of the daily setting of your life, like your coffee mug or your computer or your dog. You scrape some extra minute to get back to it. You stay awake longer than you should to reach the end of a chapter. You walk the same streets the characters walk, overhear their conversations, visit the same cafés and street markets and bourgeois mansions and working-class slums and taverns.

    If you make this commitment, though, you will be rewarded with one of the richest reading experiences of your life. Galdós ranks with Henry Fielding as the most amiable of all the great novelists, yet with a power of observation and description that can astonish.

    V. S. Pritchett acknowledged Galdós’ abilities in his review of the Lester Clark translation in The New Statesman in 1973:

    He is an excellent story-teller, he loves the inventiveness of life itself. It is extraordinary to find a novel written in the 1880s that documents the changes in the cloth trade, the rise and fall of certain kinds of café, the habits of usurers, politicians and Catholic charities but also probes the fantasies and dreams of the characters and follows their inner thoughts.

    Indeed, Galdós has a gift for creating interior monologues and exterior conversations that shows he was a veteran of many hours of listening in on the talks of others.

    One of the words you will learn in the course of reading this book is tertulia. A tertulia is conversation elevated to the level of an art form or ritual. “Spaniards are the most talkative creatures on earth,” Galdós observes. My wife and I once visited a Spanish family for coffee after their Sunday lunch. At one point, my wife’s friend had her daughter model a new dress for the grandparents, aunts and uncles. For the next forty-five minutes, at least, the entire family discussed, analyzed, deconstructed, and assayed the little girl’s dress from every conceivable angle. It was a scene that would have fit easily into Fortunata and Jacinta.

    Early on in the novel, Galdós remarks, “Clothes, ah! Is there anyone who doesn’t see in them one of the main sources of the energy of our times, perhaps even a generative cause of movement and life?” Clothes and fabric have a particular importance as they are the source of the wealth of the Santa Cruz family, whose son Juan’s dalliance with the working girl Fortunata sets off the central drama of the book.

    Juan is “a completely idle man.” His parents, having achieved a comfortable fortune through owning a successful store selling fabrics, shawls and fancy Chinese fans, indulge their only child’s lack of ambition. His father, Galdós writes, “delighted in his son’s indolence just as an artist delights in his work; the more the hands that made it grow pained and tired, the more he admires it.”

    His mother intends to maintain their fortune and standing, however, and arranges for Juan to marry Jacinta, the daughter of a rival mercantiler. Before the pair marries, Juan encounters Fortunata, an orphan living with an aunt who runs an egg and poultry shop in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor, and quickly seduces her. Easily bored, he abandons the girl–but not before getting her pregnant. Juan and Jacinta marry and head off for a honeymoon visiting sites throughout Spain, taking advantage of the novel convenience of train travel. The child dies soon after birth.

    The tertulias are highly effective modes of communication, and Jacinta soon hears rumors of Juan’s affair. While on the honeymoon, she attempts to get thr truth out of Juan, but he manages to acknowledge as little as possible. He is an altogether shallow, self-centered and manipulative character: “Santa Cruz denied some of the facts, and others, the bitterest, he sweetened and glossed over admirably well to make them pass.”

    Jacinta continues to harbor suspicions, and as years of childless marriage pass, broods upon the idea of Fortunata’s having had a child with Juan. In the meantime, having been picked up and abandoned by a string of other men, Fortunata allows herself to be taken in by Maximiliano Rubin, a pharmacy student living with his aunt, Doña Lupe, who embark on a mission to reform her.

    Although she willingly enters a convent for a course of time and weds Rubin, Fortunata soon falls back into an affair with Juan, who is attracted again by the novelty of seducing a married woman. Throughout much of the book, Fortunata tries to go along with the efforts of others to change her, but is ultimately resigned to be what she is: “I was born pueblo and I’ll stay pueblo,” she says.

    The two women meet only a few times in the course of the book, but they come to have a relationship that is far more powerful than either experiences with Juan. Fortunata develops “a burning desire to look like Jacinta, to be like her, to have her air–that particular kind of sweetness and composure.” And, at the end, Jacinta comes to accept Juan’s second child born to Fortunata as her own as the poor woman lays dying in her squalid apartment. Of this scene, Pritchett wrote,

    The last time I wept over a novel was in reading Tess when I was 18. Fifty years later Fortunata had made me weep again. Not simply because of her death but because Galdós had portrayed a woman whole in all her moods. In our own 19th century novels this situation would be melodramatic and morally overweighted–see George Eliot’s treatment of Hetty Sorrel–but in Galdós there is no such excess.

    As you might expect from a thousand-page novel, in and around the central story of Fortunata and Jacinta are woven dozens of other narratives and a cast of minor characters often as interesting as the protagonists. The women are particularly strong–Doña Lupe, for example, whose “motto was: we should always start with reality and sacrifice what seems best to what is good, and what is good to what is possible.” Or Doña Guillermina, the “saint” whose energy in wrenching donations of money, services and building materials out of everyone she encounters would put today’s best fundraisers to shame.

    And there are countless descriptions of a large and complex city in the midst of social and political changes. Amadeo abdicates in favor of the first Spanish republic, which falls in turn with the restoration of Alfonso XII. The republicans push many of the Church’s enterprises out from the center of Madrid, sparking a wave of new construction: “Every day the growing mass of bricks covered up another thin layer of the landscape. With every row that was laid, it seemed as if the builders were erasing rather than adding.”

    And there is all the drama one could wish for in a rich 19th century novel. At least three death scenes. Two weddings and two funerals. A fist fight between Rubin and Juan, a nails-bared fight between Fortunata and Juan’s latest lover. Several mad scenes. Feasts and starving orphans.

    And there is conversation:

    In our cafés, anything under the sun is fair game for conversation. Gross banalities as well as ingenious, discreet, and pertinent ideas may be heard in these palces, for they are frequented not only by rakes and swearers; enlightened people with good habits go to cafés, too. There are tertulias made up of military men, of engineers; most often, there are tertulias made up of employees and students; and whatever room they leave is filled up by out-of-towners. In a café one hears the stupidest and also the most sublime things.

    Galdós wrote Fortunata and Jacinta in the space of about a year, publishing it in 1887. By then, he’d been writing novels and plays for nearly twenty years, and he carried on for over twenty more. In total, he wrote over thirty conventional novels, plus an additional forty-six that he called Episodios nacionales, which depicted episodes from 19th century Spanish history, starting with Trafalgar and culminating in Cánovas, written in 1912 and set around the time of Fortunata.

    Of these seventy-some novels, roughly twenty have been translated into English in the course of the last 120 years. Of these, setting aside direct-to-print copies of very old translations, less than five are still in print–meaning, still for sale new from Amazon. The last new edition of an English translation of a work by Galdós appears to have been Juan Martín el Empecinado, one of his Episodios nacionales, translated by Alva Cellini and published by the Edwin Mellen Press in 2003. It sells for $109.95–and is out of stock. Used copies of Fortunata and Jacinta are available from Amazon starting at $3.99 and going up to $150. I recommend the Gullón translation, which is a masterpiece–fresh, lively and worked with considerable care.

    Fortunata and Jacinta: Two Stories of Married Women, by Benito Pérez Galdó
    Translated by Lester Clark and published by Penguin, 1973
    Translated by Agnes Moncy Gullon and published by the University of Georgia Press, 1986 and Penguin, 1988