There has been some discussion recently about the dangers of book blogging, and, in particular, how it can confine you to reading only what is new and neglecting older, less fashionable, novels you may want to read or reread (for example from Simon Savidge and Marina Sofia). A good time, then, to revive my Lost Books section, though I have used it in the past to consider those unexpectedly reprinted as well as those which seem destined never to be seen again. Iain Crichton Smith has featured already as an author of Lost Books (with A Field Full of Folk) but as all but one of his novels are out of print (the classic Consider the Lilies), he has plenty of Lost Books to choose from. Goodbye, Mr Dixon, like its predecessor, has not only been unavailable since its publication in 1974, but never made it out of hardback. It also shares the distinction of being a perfectly good novel, with the added interest that it is largely about writing.
The titular Mr Dixon is not the novel’s main character but the creation of the novel’s main character, Tom Spence. Spence describes himself as “an embryo novelist”:
“He was one of those people who live hand-to-mouth on practically nothing at all, but with the determination to have book, especially a novel, published.”
Spence has had the odd job – for example, delivering mail – but is largely without skills and has bet all on his career as a writer. Unfortunately he has “never brought a novel to a successful conclusion” never mind had one published, and, unable to live the dream, has instead dreamed it through his protagonist, Drew Dixon. This, however, creates its own problems:
“He didn’t even know very much about the world of Dixon who, unlike himself, had been writing novels for a considerable period and living from their sale.”
His novel has ground to a halt because he has decided Dixon will “meet a girl of twenty-five or thereabouts whose entry into his world was to change his life” but has no idea how to write it. Believing that all experience should be placed in the purpose of art, when he meets a young woman at an art gallery he immediately thinks of his novel:
“Dixon needed her: why couldn’t he think of something to say?”
And when she leaves he is angry because “now he wouldn’t be able to proceed with his book.” Fortuitously he meets the young woman, Ann, again and, as their relationship develops we begin to sense that it will be Spence’s life that is changed rather than Dixon’s. As Spence’s isolation ends he revisits his past, attempting to contact the mother he hasn’t seen in years and returning to his old school to see the English teacher who he believes encouraged him to write. Increasingly his admiration for Dixon turns to hatred:
“He hated him really because he was inhuman and brittle. He realised that there was nothing Dixon had veer really loved, not with any depth, not for itself alone.”
The novel also contains extracts from Spence’s novel where we see this change taking place: initially Dixon replays scenes from Spence’s life with greater success, but slowly his inadequacies become evident.
If at first the novel may seem satirical, Spence’s loneliness is too palpable to make him entirely ridiculous. Smith seeks not to ridicule Spence, who is ultimately a sympathetic characters, but his idea of the artist looking at the world “coldly and inhumanly.” Spence is forced to choose between life and art. Interestingly, the final chapter is told not from Spence’s point of view, or Dixon’s, but Ann’s, as if Spence’s perspective looking out at the world has been replace with the world looking in on him.
It’s possible to question whether a writer writing about a writer who rejects his character (a writer) and writing would regard this as a happy ending. At both the beginning and end of the novel Spence talks about writing as a bottle of Parazone (a brand of bleach):
“The yellow was bright and almost sunny but the liquid inside was acid and harsh.”
This seems very in tune with Smith’s own craft and for this reason we should perhaps be careful not to take the conclusion entirely at face value.
It seems unlikely that Smith’s novels are suddenly going to be reprinted, but an enterprising publisher could surely make them available electronically.