Archive for the ‘Lost Books’ Category

Lost Books – The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka

October 4, 2015


Josef Skvorecky ranks among the great Czech writers of the twentieth century, of which there are, of course, many – Bohumil Hrabal, Milan Kundera, Václav Havel, Ivan Kilma only form the beginnings of a list. When he and his wife fled to Canada in 1968 after the Soviet invasion, one of the first things they did was to set up a Czech publishing house. Ironically, the only one of his novels still in print in the UK seems to be The Cowards, published by Penguin Modern Classics a few years ago; The Engineer of Human Souls, generally regarded as his masterpiece (the title comes from a phrase Stalin used to describe writers) is out of print. Among his many books you will also find a detective series featuring the lugubrious Lieutenant Boruvka, the first of which, The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka, was published in 1966.

The Mournful Demeanour of Lieutenant Boruvka contains twelve tales of murder and sleuthing. Despite the death count and Boruvka’s rather humourless approach to police work, the tone is light-hearted. In the first story, ‘The Supernatural Powers of Lieutenant Boruvka’, he arrives at the scene to find his subordinates determined to convince him that an apparent suicide is murder, so determined that they will not let him speak, so that when he finally agrees with them they are unaware that this is what he has been trying to tell them all along – based not on his supernatural powers but on some rather obvious proof. The stories typically involve ‘locked room’ room mysteries (one takes place in the changing rooms of a fashion show, another on a mountain top) or alibis which turn out not to be as rock solid as they first appear. All are satisfying and clever.

As the volume progresses, another dimension is added as Skvorecky begins to develop Boruvka’s character and link the stories together. No sooner is his teenage daughter, Zuzana, introduced than we find him on holiday in Italy with her:

“He had promised that if her school report turned out well, they would spend a holiday in Italy, the home of her mother’s family. He had, however, committed a fateful error: he had neglected to define the term ‘turn out well.’”

Not only does he solve one case there, but two – the second arising when guests of the cousin of the woman whose murder he solved in the previous story. Another recurring character is a young police woman who falls in love with him; in a moment of weakness he arranges to meet her in a bar, but a murder (of course) gets in the way.

The stories were clearly written with a great fondness for the genre, shared by Boruvka who frequently refers to detective fiction (though, at times, dismissively), leading to the wonderful conclusion to ‘Death on Needlepoint’:

“‘The things these scoundrels think up!’
‘Detective story writers you mean?’ asked Lieutenant Boruvka slyly.
‘No, I mean murderers!’ Sergeant Malik retorted with some heat.”

Boruvka’s knowledge of detective fiction aids him in solving two cases, though he’s not beyond having a dig at Karel Capek’s story ‘Hordubal’:

“If I were to write detective stories, he thought to himself, I would never leave the reader at sea.”

Sentiments which Skvorecky clearly shares. Translated detective fiction is now commonplace – something that was not the case twenty-five years ago when Boruvka was published by Faber. It seems reasonable to suggest a reprint is in order. Perhaps Pushkin Press’ new crime imprint Vertigo would be suitable match?


Lost Books – Girl in a Turban

August 11, 2015

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One example of the lack of women writers in translation is the dearth of Independent Foreign Fiction Prize winners of that gender. When Jenny Erpenbeck claimed the award with The End of Days this year, many declared her the first ever female winner. In fact, when the prize returned after a five year absence in 2001, it was won by Marta Morazzoni for The Alphonse Courrier Affair, an award that later went temporarily missing from the prize’s history. (You can read a review of The Alphonse Courrier Affair here). This still represents a depressing 2 out of 21 winners – less than ten percent.

The Alphonse Courrier Affair was not Morazzoni’s first work – or indeed, her first work translated into English. Prior to writing the novel, she had published a collection of short stories – Girl in a Turban – in Italy in 1986, swiftly translated into English by Patrick Creagh in 1988. All five stories are set in the past (the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries), often touching on the lives of famous historical figures, and all, in one way or another, contemplating mortality.

The first story, ‘The White Door’, deals with Mozart’s final days, spent as the guest of a wealthy patron writing his Requiem. When his wife Constanze, visits unexpectedly, she is determined to visit the Villa of his sponsors, but he puts her off:

“ ‘How old you’ve got,’ she said, with all the savagery of a child who does not weigh its words.”

“So his malady was so obvious that it even had a name,” Mozart thinks to himself. That night he dreams of entering the Villa. Once inside he is drawn to a white door – “by instinct he knew that there was the way and that was the ineluctable access.” the door is clearly death but once opened:

“The boyish laugh that rose slowly in his throat spread forth in harmonious sound.”

In accepting death Mozart rediscovers his prematurely vanished youth.

The idea of a good death features in a number of the stories, most noticeably in ‘The Last Assignment’ which tells of Charles V’s decision to retreat to a monastery in the final years of his life through the eyes of Don Luis, a noble who is called to follow the King and is placed in charge of providing provisions for the royal party. Don Luis seems a simple man who goes about his task to the best of his ability, but he also strikes up a relationship with a gypsy whom he passes on the road to and from the town. He helps her when he finds her fallen on the ground, and she later returns the favour when he falls ill; and yet, you would not call their relationship even friendship. After his illness, Charles takes him into his confidence and allows him to read his memoirs, which he takes charge off after Charles’ death, deciding not to release them into the world for reasons we never discover, yet somehow seeming entirely in keeping with his character.

The title story refers to a painting more famously known as ‘Girl with a Pearl Earring’, currently residing in the home of art dealer Van Rijk

“Propped up against the wall opposite the window in the bedroom, the picture by this time had reigned supreme for a month.”

Though reluctant to sell it, he eventually does, taking the trouble to travel to Denmark with it. He is remembered by the buyer’s daughter when her father dies, and the picture is seen to rise above the commercial bargain they made.

Although death does not feature in the two remaining stories, ‘The Dignity of Signor da Ponte’ centres on an act of violence which we might assume the title character fears has ended in death, and ‘Order in the House’ concerns a living death as its protagonist, Karl, finds himself suddenly paralysed.

Morazzoni’s stories do not attempt to be neat or tricky; they moved with a staid pace in suiting to their settings. Each feels particular to its time period yet has a certain mythic quality thanks to her choice of subjects – kings, paintings, composers. None ends with a shock, yet each conclusion, on reflection, seems well-timed. Given that these were Morazzoni’s first published work, she handles the pressures of historical writing, especially with the use of characters who have actually lived, with enormous confidence. A writer who deserves to be rediscovered.

Lost Books – Fragments

May 23, 2015


Ayi Kwei Armah is a Ghanaian writer whose first novel, The Beautyful Ones Are Not Yet Born, has become a landmark of African Literature. Published in 1968, it remains in print to this day. Armah’s other fiction, however, largely written during the 1970s, has slowly fallen out of favour. Spurrred on by Joy delire’s month of African Literature, I decided to read his second novel, Fragments, which tells the story of a young man, Baako, returning to Ghana after spending time abroad; above all, it is a tale of frustrated idealism and disillusionment.

The novel opens with Baako’s departure, but even at this point it is clear that his return is what excites his relatives: “there was such hot desire impatient for his return at his departure.” His mother is confident “He will come back a man. A big man.” Only his grandmother worries for him, picturing him abroad as she accompanies him to the airport:

“All the people were white people all knowing only how to speak the white people’s languages…But Baako walked among them neither touched nor seen, like a ghost in an overturned world in which all human flesh was white.”

Her fears are justified: we discover later that during his five years away Baako has been ill with a “sickness of the soul”; where she is wrong is in the assumption that he will no longer feel isolated once back home. In fact, her picture of him applies as much on his return to Ghana as it does in America, his idealism contrasting with the cynical realities of the time and how he is expected to act as a “been-to.” Even before he sets foot on Ghanaian soil again, he is faced with the crass materialism he will experience on his return in the shape of fellow passenger Brempong:

“It’s no use going back with nothing. You may not have the chance to travel again in a long time. It’s a big opportunity and those at home must benefit from it too.”

Brempong regularly ships goods over – a widespread expectation, as Baako will discover when he is asked again and again when his car will be arriving. (Later doubts will be voiced regarding his time abroad on the evidence that he is regularly seen at a bus stop). Brempong is also not impressed with Baako’s attitude to employment – that is, his expectation that his qualifications will gain him a job with state television: “You have to know people.” Which is, of course, what he eventually has to resort to, contacting an old teacher:

“It all keeps coming back to this, in the end,” he said, lifting the receiver, “The organisations might just as well not exist. You keep getting pushed into using personal contacts.”

His idealism is similarly undermined by the job itself. Believing that film is the art of the future – “in many ways, I’ve thought of the chance of doing film scripts for an illiterate audience would be superior to writing, just as an artistic opportunity” – he is disillusioned to discover that the television station sees as its main purpose the coverage of state events:

“We have to follow the Head of State and get pretty pictures of him and those around him…We had a lecture before you came. A nation is built through glorifying its big shots. That’s our job anyway.”

Literature itself doesn’t escape censure: as one writer says at an event Baako attends, “Nobody meets to discuss real writing anymore. This has become a market where we’re all sold.”

The corruption that Baako sees all around him is also evident in his own family, particularly when his sister gives birth. The outdooring ceremony for the child is held early to quickly follow payday and maximise returns. Much is made of the money given by the important guests to encourage others to be generous. The child later dies.

The novel is not entirely gloomy, however – Baako finds love when he meets Juana, a Puerto Rican doctor who also gives the reader an outsider’s view of Ghanaian society: “another defeated and defeating place.” But even love cannot save him form the frustration he feels at the corruption around him and the expectation that he be a part of it:

“I know what I’m expected to be…It’s not what I want to be.”

This sentence demonstrates why the novel has universal appeal. It’s version of Ghana may be dated, but its portrayal of a man struggling against both his family and his society, unable to accept their values, remains as relevant as ever.

Lost Books – Poor Tom

January 21, 2015


Edwin Muir is best known as a poet and, perhaps, as the translator, along with his wife Willa, of Kafka into English. He also wrote, however, in a number of other genres: an autobiography; a travel book, Scottish Journey, which remains in print to this day; and three novels. The last of these was Poor Tom, published in 1932. It contains a strong autobiographical element, though nothing to compare with what Muir himself suffered when he, like the brothers Tom and Mansie, came to Glasgow when his father lost his farm on Orkney: Muir’s father, two brothers, and mother died within the space of a few years.

Though death is, unsurprisingly, a central theme of Poor Tom, it begins with that other great staple of literature, sex. Rarely, in fact, have I read a novel so concerned with sex (certainly in the first half) that is, at the same time, entirely without the act itself. Both Tom and Mansie retain a rather Puritan attitude towards sex –indeed Scotland is more than once referred to as a Puritan country – and this attitude is at the root of the issue which divides them when the novel opens and Tom spies Mansie with a woman, Helen, he recently courted, only to be rejected for over-stepping the boundaries of propriety:

“…he hadn’t dared to touch her or to kiss her for weeks and weeks…Better if the thing had always stayed at that stage. For her kisses drove a fellow frantic and she didn’t seem to know it…No wonder he had got violent that night that night in Maxwell Park; he was beyond himself, couldn’t help it.”

A foggy vagueness descends whenever any sexual activity beyond kissing is discussed, but it is unlikely that the violence amounted to much more than groping, a clumsiness that perhaps originates in Tom’s inability to understand how to connect his desire with action:

“Tom, in other words, simply could not imagine himself lying in bed with the stylishly dressed girls whom he walked out – at least while he was walking them out; or rather he could not imagine the process which would lead to that consummation.”

It is important to remember that such attitudes towards sex were held sincerely – though television adaptations and contemporary novelists often like to suggest otherwise. Tom’s desire for Helen makes him feel that he has “desecrated their love”. Mansie also uses religious language to describe his experience of sex: unexpectedly finding a girl willing to sleep with him (we assume – the act itself happens within an ellipsis) he observes:

“Yet, sitting now in the lighted tram, she looked so proud and unapproachable that what had happened that evening seemed a blasphemous impossibility.”

This ends the relationship; the next time they meet she looks right through him. This attitude towards sex exacerbates Tom’s anger towards Mansie and Helen: he sees Mansie as having betrayed him, and Helen as having revealed herself not to be the respectable young woman she pretended to.

The themes of sex and death are united by that most Scottish of emotions, guilt. After seeing Mansie and Helen together, Tom falls out not only with his brother, but with life, something which manifests itself in excessive drinking, and a tumble from a tram car. Though he initially seems to recover from the resultant blow to the head, his condition slowly begins to deteriorate. His failing health brings the brothers together again, but Mansie blames himself for Tom’s condition:

“If it hadn’t been for my going with that girl this might never have happened! I wish to God I’d never set eyes on her.”

Poor Tom has moments of wonderful writing, for example the description of Helen’s ineffectual attempts to conceal her desire: “she cannot keep the waves of passion from flowing over [her face], from rippling under that smooth mask like the muscles under the hide of some lovely animal.” Muir’s extended personification of Death towards the end, originating from Christ’s sight of the Roman soldiers approaching Gethsemane, and ending with Death as a nightly companion who “lies down quietly beside him and takes him in his arms” is worth reading on its own.

However, Muir’s narrative voice overpowers the characters, with his thoughts dominating whether ascribed to Tom or Mansie. Perhaps for this reason, the female characters – the mother, Helen, and a sister, Jean – rarely come to life. It remains interesting as a social document – not only for its examination of sexual attitudes, but also the political scene, with socialism competing with religion for Mansie’s heart – and for anyone interested in Muir’s poetry (there is a powerful scene with a horse, an animal which appears throughout Muir’s poetry). Only those with a very hard heart, though, will not be moved by its conclusion.

Lost Books – Retreat to Innocence

December 12, 2014

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In 1956, in the middle of writing her Children of Violence series, Doris Lessing published her now neglected novel, Retreat to Innocence. Reprinted in 1967, it has never reappeared, largely as result of Lessing’s own dismissal of it as ‘shallow’ and ‘soft-centred and sentimental.’ Perusing the substantial list of Lessing’s works which often preface her books, including poetry, operas and drama, you will find no trace of it. This, of course, raises the general question of whether writers should be able to censor their own canon, and the more particular one of whether Lessing was correct in allowing the novel to vanish like a disgraced comrade from a photograph.

Retreat to Innocence works with a small cast of characters to tell a love story where the political dimension is as important as the emotional. Julia is the innocent, a young woman from a privileged background who is now making her own life London. Quite by chance she meets a middle-aged Czech refugee, Jan in a café; he has experience in excess. She, of course, dismisses any idea of being attracted to him, but later finds she cannot forget him:

“She shut her eyes to feel the happiness; and clear against her lids came the picture of the man in the coffee-house. She saw his mouth, tense and quivering; his eyes, shadowed – tormented. She had not seen them then: now she could see nothing else.”

Soon she finds herself heading back to the café without entirely admitting to herself that is her destination. Their relationship follows the traditional path of initial dislike and distrust to love and passion. Just observe the description of their second conversation: “she frowned”; “she bit her lip and gazed furiously at him”; “she said aggressively.” Lessing, however, is interested in more than a young girl’s infatuation with an older man; Jan is soaked in politics, with a background as an active Communist in his own country. Julia, on the other hand, dismisses politics entirely:

“We don’t plot and dream about the future and carry on an intrigue – …My generation…I tell you, if we’re ever tempted to have anything to do with politics, we’ve only got to look at you and that’s enough.”

Lessing is keen to point out that this is a generational rather than an individual contrast, and characters frequently refer to differences between the generations. Her father, clearly a pillar of the British establishment, also observes a similar difference:

“A more self-centred, selfish, materialistic generation has never been born into this unfortunate old country.”

(Interesting how this has been said by every generation of the next since). Julia’s innocence is, as the title suggests, willed, a refusal to look beyond her own happiness. Her relationship with Jan forces her to leave her comfort zone and engage with a wider world. This does, of course, mean that much of the novel is taken up with Jan talking patiently to Julia, interspersed with her often inane interruptions. When he says, a few moments after they have slept together for the first time, “Now listen, Julia, I shall give you another little lecture,” it’s not a euphemism.

However, the novel does not entirely lack complexity. As usual with Lessing, all the characters are presented with some sympathy, even stiff upper lip types like Julia’s father and her boyfriend, Roger. Lessing is particularly good on the relationship between Julia and her room-mate Betty, one minute best friends, the next resenting some slight or bad habit. This relationship allows us to see Julia as a more rounded character; with Jan she is inevitably diminished, particularly as Lessing at no point describes the physical aspect of their relationship, or presents it from his point of view outside of what he tells her. Jan, too, has depth. His certainty is not all-encompassing: he cannot decide whether to return to Czechoslovakia or not – his brother lives there, but he also has friends who have been imprisoned or executed.

The novel’s main weakness seems to originate in the feeling that the relationship between Jan and Julia has been created only to explore particular themes: the difference between the generation which fought the war and that which came after; between East and West; between youth and experience. Jan is apparently based on a man whom Lessing did have a relationship with, but Julia is not Lessing and her attraction to Jan never entirely convinces. This is not the same, however, as saying that the novel deserves to be consigned to oblivion. When Julia asks:

“Are you quite sure that even in your half of the world people want what you want, and not just comfort and being able to get out the rain?”

she is asking a question as pertinent to politics now as then. Whether it should be reprinted is an economic question (though it will soon have been out of print for fifty years – fairly good publicity, I would have thought). It does seem, though, the kind of novel that should be available electronically, now that we have that option.

Lost Books – Two Women

November 9, 2014

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There is a temptation to think that books exist in a Darwinian universe where the fittest survive as classics and those less worthy perish into out-of-print extinction. Of course, as in the animal world, those blessed with longevity do not necessarily possess the best qualities, simply those qualities which are best suited to survival. Books also have the advantage that, Jurassic Park like, they can be resurrected for a new audience at any point – you need only think of Sandor Marai’s Embers, or Hans Fallada’s Alone in Berlin. Reason tells us, however, that not every neglected text has been unfairly allowed to die out, and that some should remain the sole preserve of academics. Harry Mulisch’s Two Women is a case in point – not a bad novel, but one that feels very much of its time (the 1970s) and unlikely to survive long if released into the present literary climate.

I’ve long been an admirer of Dutch writer Harry Mulisch, though only a few of his many novels have been translated into English. I was delighted to obtain a copy of Two Women, originally published in 1975 and then translated into English by Els Early in 1980 for John Calder – at that time Calder published a number of exciting European writers like Heinrich Boll and Alain Robbe-Grillet, as well as Beckett, William Burroughs and Jorge Luis Borges’ Fictions. It’s a slim novel, a little over 120 pages, which recounts a relationship between two women (the title is something of a giveaway, though the male authorship is not).

Laura, the narrator, is older and recently divorced; her attraction to twenty-year-old Sylvia is immediate and unexpected:

“Never before had I felt so clearly from one moment to the next that I was doing something that was going to change my life. Never before had I been involved with a woman, and at that point I hardly realised what I was about to do. Presumably I still though I was being carried along by some platonic, aesthetic feeling, as found in books.”

They move in together but Sylvia refuses to tell her mother – Laura must pretend to be her boyfriend’s mother. She even arranges to have a photograph taken with a young man on a trip to zoo to provide evidence of ‘Thomas’, an example of calculation that foreshadows her behaviour later in the novel. Laura’s ex-husband. Alfred, is puzzled by her new relationship, describing it as a ‘performance’ and a ‘game’, and speculating it originates in her inability to have children. To be fair, Laura herself seems uncertain of her sexuality:

“Each of us were only lesbian in that we slept together, but neither of us were women who got sick at the idea of having to sleep with a man. We never went to cafes or clubs for homosexuals, or to one of those women ghettos which could be found in the city, and as far as I was concerned, I knew there would never be another woman in my life except her.”

It is because the novel exists almost entirely in the world of sexual politics that it can feel dated. When two men pick up Laura and Sylvia in Nice, they become furious when they realise they are not going to sleep with them. Even a visit to the theatre sees an all-male performance of Orpheus and Eurydice, masturbation included.

All of this takes place in Laura’s memories as she drives to France where her mother has died. She has not spoken to her mother since she attacked Sylvia with her cane on a visit where Laura had asked Sylvia to stay in the background. Since then, Sylvia has left Laura for Alfred (when I said the novel was about sexual politics, I wasn’t kidding). This, in turn, leads to the novel’s dramatic conclusion which I am now largely going to give away because: a) no-one else is going to read it; and b) it was the one event that made it both interesting and powerful. When Laura returns from France, Sylvia appears to tell, her she’s pregnant:

“That’s what you wanted, didn’t you? You wanted a child from me…I’ve come to bring it to you.”

This is what a book group would call a ‘talking point’, though, again, it feels dated as a result of both advances in technology and attitudes.

I certainly have no regrets for having both tracked down and read Two Women – if nothing else it provides a further dimension to my reading of Mulisch. However, I don’t feel I can demand that it be immediately brought back into print. It’s a novel whose time has probably passed, best left to be discovered by those are prepared to dig down into the lost layers of the second-hand shelves.

Lost Books – Honeymoon

October 21, 2014

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When Stu over at Winstonsdad reviewed Patrick Modiano’s The Search Warrant and casually mentioned he was in with a chance of winning the Nobel Prize I thought I would investigate further. This proved fairly straight-forward: although little of his work had been translated into English, and most of that was out of print, I picked up a copy of Honeymoon (translated by Barbara Wright in 1992) for under a fiver. Within a few days he was indeed announced as the winner much to everyone’s (well, not Stu’s obviously) surprise and my delight – copies of his out-of-print work were quickly out of my price range.

Honeymoon seems to be typical of Modiano’s work – the general consensus seems to be that he tackles the same themes again and again – in that it is short (Simenon is an influence) and deals with the German Occupation of France. The novel begins with a suicide in a hotel in Milan. The central character, Jean, overhears it discussed at the bar:

“What had caused her to do it I might never know.”

Only later does he discover that he knows the woman in question – Ingrid Rigaud – and, years later, abandons his own life in order to attempt to answer the question he asked himself that day. Having said farewell to his wife and friends at the airport he leaves, not for Rio to shoot a documentary as they think, but for Milan, returning to Paris to in order to “pick up her traces.” Modiano now has two characters ending their lives (though in different ways) for obscure and shadowy reasons. One clue is Jean’s sense that the past is inseparable from the present:

“For a long time – and this particular time with greater force than usual – summer has been a season that gives me a sense of emptiness and absence, and takes me back to the past…The past and the present merge in my mind through a phenomenon of superimposition.”

The summer in Milan, when he heard of Ingrid’s suicide, merges into an earlier summer when he first meets Ingrid and her husband in Saint-Raphael, hitching a lift with them to Saint-Tropez. Modiano shifts feely between the different years throughout the novel as if to emphasise meaninglessness of chronology. A number of clues to Ingrid’s past are in evidence – only to be understood later. Though her passport states she is from Vienna, when Jean mentions that he has been there recently, she does not react. Later, as they switch the lights off to avoid being invited to a neighbour’s party, Jean asks what they will do if the neighbour taps them on the shoulder (Ingrid has already said they will pretend to be sleeping if they are seen):

“Well, in that case we’ll pretend to be dead.”

Ingrid and Riguad’s relationship with each other, and that part of France, began with The Occupation when they fled Paris together to a place where “people behaved as if the war didn’t exist.” (This is the honeymoon of the title). Ingrid’s Viennese origins suggest she is Jewish, or certainly that she came to France with her father to escape the Nazis. When the Germans begin to investigate people even there, they hide in a villa that belongs to friend of Rigaud’s mother:

“They built fortifications along the coast and came prowling around the villa. Ingrid and Rigaud had to put out the lights and pretend to be dead.”

Once again, Modiano suggests the past is a template for the present.

Jean’s relationship to these memories are unclear. Though he is investigating Ingrid’s past, there is little evidence he has unearthed such detail. (He meets her only twice). It is as if what he is trying to discover sits alongside his attempts to discover it in the narrative. At the same time he is moving into Rigaud’s old apartment, he is also reliving his own past, “in all these places where we had lived in the old days and which I have now come back to.” After spending his life making documentaries about explorers, Jean now seems to be on his own internal exploration.

Though brief, this novel seemed to me rich in atmosphere and ideas. It reminded me a little of Muriel Spark, particularly The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie with its masterful use of a non-chronological narrative where words and events echo across the pages. If this is typical of Modiano’s work, then I look forward to reading more.

Lost Books – Goodbye, Mr Dixon

September 27, 2014

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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.

Lost Books – The Alienist

November 20, 2012

For a Brazilian writer of the 1800s, it is perhaps remarkable how much of Machado de Assis’ work has stayed in print in English. His masterpiece, Epitaph of a Small Winner, appeared in a new edition only a few years ago, and, more recently, a number of his short stories have been made available to download. Of the translations which have fallen out of print, the most difficult to source for a number of years has been The Alienist which originally appeared in 1963 (in the same translation by W. L. Grossman) in The Psychiatrist and Other Stories. Luckily Melville House have re-issued it as part of their ‘Art of the Novella’ series which has so far provided an interesting mix of the renowned and the less well known.

The story is easily summarised: famous physician Simao Bacamarte, having studied extensively abroad, returns to his hometown of Itaguai determined to make a significant scientific impact in the area of psychology:

“The health of the soul! The loftiest possible goal for a doctor!”

(Interestingly, his determination is explained in psychological terms, as a result of five years of marriage without children). He asks the council for permission to construct an asylum where those deemed insane will be treated together. Despite local misgivings – “Whoever heard of putting a lot of crazy people together in one house?” – the plan goes ahead and the first patients are admitted. Soon, however, Bacamarte comes to suspect that madness is more widespread than he first thought:

“Till now madness has been thought a small island in an ocean of insanity. I am beginning to suspect it is not an island at all but a continent.”

Anyone, he feels, who lacks “equilibrium of the mental faculties” must be insane. As equilibrium is hard to find, the asylum quickly fills up until the townspeople rebel. Bacamarte attempts reversing his definition of madness and imprisoning those who show too much equilibrium, but again he is not satisfied. By this point, you can probably guess where the story is heading.

Despite its age (psychiatry was clearly in its infancy when it was written) de Assis provides an amusing satire on the difficulties in deciding who is sane and who isn’t (and how this power can be abused). He also combines this with a dig at local politics with various groups coalescing for and against the asylum. A blind respect for science (or perhaps simply fame) seems to be another target as Bacamarte is allowed to do much as he pleases simply because he is held in such esteem. Even when he is eventually challenged (by an angry mob – and it doesn’t get much more challenging than that!) he is able to skilfully deflect the blame and carry on as he wishes. De Assis may deliver the tale in a deceptively light tone but this does not prevent it from being both thought-provoking and relevant.

Lost Books – All the Little Animals

October 7, 2012

All the Little Animals by Walker Hamilton is an interesting rediscovery, brought back into print over forty years after its original publication (in 1968) by Freight Books at the suggestion of Alan Warner. Warner was asked by Freight Books founder Adrian Searle if he knew of any forgotten Scottish novels that he felt deserved to return to print and he immediately suggested Hamilton’s debut novel. Hamilton’s early death (in 1969 aged only 34, but with one further novel puiblished) and the novel’s English setting perhaps go some way to explaining why the novel has been forgotten, though it is fair to say that many other Scottish novels from that time were only brought back into print in the 1980s.

The novel itself is difficult to classify. Its central character, Bobby, is a 31 year old man with the mind of a child. When, having run away from an abusive step-father, he meets up with Mr Summers we might be put in mind of Of Mice and Men – the novel is similarly brief. However, their relationship is not as central to the story as that of George and Lennie. There is also no aspiration to their plans, Mr Summers having devoted his life instead to a mission, to bury animals that have been killed on the road – what we would now call roadkill:

“People can bury each other, boy…but the animals have to be helped….Other men kill them and I bury them.”

This mission gives the novel a fable-like quality, and also reminded me of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace, where the treatment of animals, and their corpses, becomes an important symbol of how we live our lives.

As Warner points out in his introduction, there is also a strong anti-car message at work. The novel opens with Bobby involved in a traffic accident, and later Mr Summers is also hit by a car. When Bobby asks Summers where he finds so many dead animals and who kills them he replies:

“On the roads, boy, the high-roads and the by-roads, where the wheels are, boy, and the men behind the wheels. They drive their silly metal boxes and kill and kill and KILL-“

In a scene where a driver harasses a man herding cattle along the road, Summers simply scratches the car as it passes. His hatred of cars takes on a religious intensity:

“I’m a blasphemer as well. I hate all cars and all motorists, I hold black masses and read the highway code backwards, I make clay models of rally drivers and stick pins in them and when I have to fill up forms I put my religion as pedestrian.”

It’s no surprise, then, that the abusive step-father, The Fat, is identified in Bobby’s mind with his car:

“It was foreign, I think, and big and black and silver and unfriendly looking. It was too big for an ordinary person relay so it could only have been the Fat’s car.”

The same car is also important in the novels’ dénouement. Admittedly, The Fat is a bit of a cartoon villain, but he does go some way to explain why the novel was made into a film in 1999 with John Hurt as Mr Summers and Christian Bale as Bobby, as the final couple of chapters are very much in the thriller genre.

Whether the novel is a rediscovered classic or not is really beside the point; the real question is whether it deserves to be back in print. The answer to that is an unequivocal yes: it’s interesting, eccentric and thought-provoking, and well worth reading.