META NAME="Forgotten Classics" CONTENT="neglected novels forgotten authors."

forgotten classics

'Reading neglected writers so you don't have to' A Time Out column and a blog for books that seem to be undeservedly forgotten, from John Galsworthy to Rose Macaulay, from Amos Tutuola to DH Lawrence, from W. Somerset Maugham to Fanny Burney. What books do you think we should revive? If you love a writer who has lapsed in popularity please let me know! Are my choices controversial?

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Evelyn Waugh, Vile Bodies (1930)

Waugh’s moral and satiric novel of the emptiness of riches and fame has clear lessons for contemporary culture’s obsession with celebrity (and particularly magazines like Hello and Heat). In Vile Bodies the aristocrats and bored rich of 1914 London engage in an endless and enervating round of parties, their every move and fashion innovation eagerly followed and swallowed by the public through gossip columns. The vague hero of the novel, Adam, becomes a columnist for a while and undermines the entire process by making people and trends up to amuse himself. ‘Oh Nina, what a lot of parties’ he complains, and the narrator intervenes: ‘(Masked parties, Savage parties, Victorian parties, Greek parties, Wild West parties, Russian parties, Circus parties, parties where one had to dress as somebody else, almost naked parties in St John’s wood, parties in flats and studios and houses and ships and hotels and night clubs, in windmills and swimming-baths, tea parties at school where one ate muffins and meringues and tinned crab, parties at Oxford where one drank brown sherry and smoked Turkish cigarettes, dull dances in London and comic dances in Scotland and disgusting dances in Paris – all that succession and repetition of massed humanity … Those vile bodies …)’. The title is from the funeral service, and Waugh’s vision here is misanthropic, attacking the emptiness and amorality of pre-war life. Without any higher purpose or context for life the foolish ‘Bright Young Things’ in the novel become focussed on the physical, the material and the mundane and fail to escape their vile bodies, instead being doomed to self-destruction. They frequently complain of boredom and become increasingly desolated in their hedonism. One of their number goes mad, another falls pregnant, and in the end their pointless career around Mayfair is halted by the intervention of war. It is not just the young generation who feel the stultifying effects of drifting through history. Prime Minister Outrage, Lady Throbbing and Margot Metroland (the names just on the edge of ludicrous) all find themselves attacked by ennui. Yet they refuse to change; when challenged by an upstart Spiritualist to examine their consciences the response is a type-that-built-the-empire cry: ‘what a damned impudent woman!’ Despite the jokes, of which there are many, it is a very desolate book; a signpost to Waugh’s later masterpieces of pessimism and desperation A Handful of Dust, Brideshead Revisited and the Sword of Honour trilogy. Adam is, like the protagonists of those novels, hapless and slightly too earnest for the world he finds himself in. The novel’s closing scenes see him seemingly doomed to poverty and possible death on the fields of France. Even love does not really seem to have a place or a saving quality. Vile Bodies is like PG Wodehouse channelling the spirit of Thomas Hardy: melancholic and arch at the same time.


Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Patrick Hamilton

Patrick Hamilton, The Slaves of Solitude (1947)


Patrick Hamilton is the great forgotten man of 1930s and 1940s fiction. Hamilton's maybe best known nowadays for the films of his novels and plays - Gaslight with Anton Walbrook, and Hitchcock's experimental film Rope. His prose is assured and impressive, but his novels are about the dark lonely corners of pre and post war London. Hangover Square (1941), generally considered his masterpiece, concerns the grey world of a down at heel borderline alcoholic whose destructive drinking and obsessive relationships combine to fray his fragile hold upon reality. In Hangover Square Hamilton painted London with all its malevolence and seedy dinginess, but it is in the slightly later Slaves of Solitude, set in the commuter town of Thames Lockton (essentially Henley), that he really captures the horror and bleakness of life in the 1940s. Hamilton's protagonists are fearful and anxious, worried and worked upon. Here is a taste of his cynicism from The Slaves of Solitude: ‘When he at last came out the other elderly guests were already setting about their business - the business, that is to say, of those who in fact had no business on this earth save that of cautiously steering their respective failing bodies along paths free from discomfort and illness in the direction of the final illness which would exterminate them’. The novel explores the isolation and horror of suburbia, focussing on the alienation of contemporary society and the enervating effects of loneliness. The Slaves of Solitude is not an easy book, encompassing small minded racism, social bullying and desperation, but it is a precise, nasty piece of work – a vicious gem. The suburbs of London are pointless, bleak, dull places with little excitement or sympathy.


Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Graham Greene, The Ministry of Fear (1943)

Famous now perhaps for a handful of works – Brighton Rock, Our Man in Havana, The Heart of the Matter – Graham Greene was a profound stylist and experimental writer. His minor novels are often things of delicate and strange beauty. The Ministry of Fear is such a text, an odd, enigmatic work about salvation, memory, guilt and loyalty set during the blitz. Greene’s protagonist Rowe is a conflicted, grief-stricken man racked with guilt for the killing of his wife in an act of mercy – in a powerful flashback we see them both tacitly acknowledging what he is doing. Rowe attempts to cocoon himself away from his past and from his present, living from day to day and rarely reaching out to anyone. The war is not his business, and he lives mechanically. The masterly opening chapter begins with Rowe visiting a rather forlorn wartime fĂȘte in a Bloomsbury square for old time’s sake and ends with him in a daze looking skywards from the basement of his freshly bombed out house. At the fĂȘte he wins a cake which, slowly, it becomes obvious contains something of great value to the Germans, and a series of strange events lead to him being sought in connection with another, more violent murder, before being admitted to a sinister nursing home having lost his memory.

Rowe’s numb existence is disrupted and he is finally roused to action, becoming at least involved in the world around him, if not able to affect things particularly. He repeatedly thinks of himself in a book, specifically a narrative of heroism, but events remain resolutely messy and unpleasant rather than resolving themselves properly; people die randomly, and truth and honour prove to be slippery concepts. The novel’s key atmosphere is menace, the unknown horror that lives below the surface of most people’s lives.

The blitz in this novel is something which Londoners live with, occasionally dying and grieving for those gone, but generally viewing events as something of an irritation which rearranges the road network and prevents them from getting home to central London from the relative obscurity of Battersea. It is this sense of the ordinariness of war, the anti-heroic day-to-day nature of resistance, that is the keynote to the novel. It all concludes in classic Greene fashion – cynically, insubstantially, acknowledging the uncomfortable fragility of happiness. Rowe and his Austrian refugee lover Anna deceive each other in order to stay together, each one knowing the other’s secrets but never revealing them: ‘They had to tread carefully for a lifetime, never speak without thinking twice; they must watch each other like enemies because they loved each other so much’. The exquisite bitterness of this conclusion is a fittingly ambivalent conclusion to this novel of hedging, sullen horror.


G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904)

Chesterton’s whimsical satire is set in 2004, a world where ‘the people had absolutely lost faith in revolutions’ and therefore history has in effect stopped. Nothing has changed in the century apart from the pragmatic adoption of inertia: ‘that vague and somewhat depressed reliance upon things happening as they have always happened, which is with all Londoners a mood, had become an assumed condition’. The consequence is tediousness and stability: ‘There was really no reason for any man doing anything but the thing he had done the day before’. In many ways this novel is a response to Chesterton’s friend HG Wells’ Time Machine – it suggests that humankind does not evolve but rather tends towards dullness. People don’t really like change. London is defined by ‘modernity and monotony and civilisation’, a dystopian vision of a future city in thrall to efficiency in which the individual and the historical have no place.

This fantasy of a stultifying future is upset by the appointment of a new King (the system is no longer hereditary but by random election), Auberon Quin. Quin attempts to inspire local patriotism and upset the dourness of life by forcing the London boroughs to wear medieval-style livery and compete with their neighbours. He makes up romantic histories for them, despite their protests. at one stage giving a talk to the Society for the Recovery of London Antiquities in which he mourns the fact that so ‘few of them knew the legends of their own boroughs’ before spinning stories relating to the naming of Kensington Gore, Knightsbridge and Hammersmith (he refuses to enter the controversy as to whether Notting Hill ‘means Nutting Hill (in allusion to the rich woods which no longer cover it), or whether it is a corruption of Nothing-ill, referring to its reputation among the ancients as an Earthly Paradise’). Quin issues a Proclamation demanding that the London Boroughs should be in a state of war with each other, mounting a city guard and skirmishing. Most of them ignore this, apart from one Adam Wayne, provost of Notting Hill. Wayne is a Don Quixote figure, maddened by romances and the desire for his life to be something other than the material drudgery of Pump Street in Notting Hill. He gathers an army and through ingenuity and lunatic commitment subdues the rest of the city. Part of the joy of the novel resides in the harum-scarum fighting through the streets of West London (culminating in ‘the Battle of the Lamps’ ambush on the Portobello Road). Wayne’s standard is the sign from the Red Lion pub, and this sense of the significant in the local, minor and particular is both sweet and mad. The novel is slight but scathing in its attack on pomposity and the madness of nationalism; the jokes about London are cute. Chesterton understands the strange tribalness of London and its unique atmosphere: ‘London, if it be not one of the masterpieces of man, is at least one of his sins’.



Friday, March 30, 2007

Forgotten Classics: Thomas Middleton and Thomas Dekker, The Roaring Girl (published 1611)

In 1500 London was relatively small, c. 75,000; by 1603 this had grown to 200,000 and the city was one of the largest and most dynamic in the world. There was a massive turnover of people – an eighth of the UK population lived there at some point, plus aliens and visitors. London's mercantile prominence was due to its development as a port and growth in trade, and also because of the newly centralised Tudor government which focussed administration, the law and court life on the city. This meant an influx of money and influential people to the city. Between 4000 and 5000 young men arrived each year to begin apprenticeships which took 7 years to complete. This meant that there was a huge youth culture of sorts. The city was a very small area, crammed with life and people; there was a massive disparity of life and wealth, and an increase in crime and poverty.

The burgeoning population, importance and self-definition of the city spawned new genres of writing and drama. Most important is the form known as City Comedy, which emphasised the new power and social, political and economic dynamism of the city, as well as documenting the complex class issues within the community. These plays were written very fast, often in collaboration, and attracted huge audiences who were interested in their local references and fast moving plots. The comedies tended to maintain a unity of time and place, symmetrical arrangement of stereotypical characters and utilised particular recurrent plots - the gulling of fools, the subversion of authority and an attack on pomposity. An excellent example of the genre is Middleton’s and Dekker’s The Roaring Girl. The plot is a standard ‘errant son defies father to marry his sweetheart’; the most interesting thing about the play is the title character. Moll Cutpurse, the Roaring Girl, is a cross-dresser who likes wearing male clothing and smoking: ‘One is she/ That roars at midnight in deep tavern bowls,/ That beats the watch, and constables controls’. There is some debate as to what she actually is: ‘some will not stick to say she’s a man, and some both man and woman’ which gets the response ‘That were excellent: she might first cuckold the husband and then make him do as much for the wife!’. Moll’s purpose, though, is actually far more radical simply questioning sexual boundaries. When she fights the mischievous Laxton – and wins – she claims to be fighting on behalf of her sex. She means, she says: ‘To teach thy base thoughts manners. Thou’rt one of those/ That thinks each woman thy fond flexible whore,/ If she but casts a liberal eye upon thee’. She wants equality – to be, as she says to Sir Alexander, ‘as good a man as your son’. She claims ‘I have no humour to marry. I love to lie o’both sides o’th’bed myself and again o’th’other side. A wife, you know, ought to be obedient, but I fear me I am too headstrong to obey, therefore I’ll ne’er go about it’. She knows her own mind and wants to do her own thing. Marriage, for Moll, is the loss of independence, the merging of the woman into the man. These sentiments introduce a radical agenda, and demonstrate the rise of the newly independent woman – the city gave more power to women either through money or position. Yet Moll’s speeches are really quite unusual, too, in their easy undermining of patriarchal systems and assumptions. This is the true radicalism of the play – in demonstrating quite how easy it is to avoid certain things, or to act in counterintuitive ways, it shows that obedience is simply something that people do rather than something they should do.


Wednesday, February 21, 2007

john milton

Forgotten London Classics: John Milton, Areopagitica; A Speech of Mr John Milton For the Liberty of Unlicenc’d Printing, To the Parlament of England (1644)


John Milton could lay quite a claim to being the greatest Londoner of them all: famous in his lifetime throughout Europe as both poet and prose writer; master of multiple genres including tragedy, epic, the sonnet and the elegy; composer of Paradise Lost (finished when he had completely lost his sight); signatory to Charles I’s death warrant and chief apologist for the regicide; able to compose in several languages and read Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Italian and French; formidable proponent of new systems of learning and social relations in his works on divorce and education; coiner of the word satanic, amongst many others; and fierce advocate of a kind of free speech. Milton’s London was that of the 1640s and 1650s, revolutionary and dynamic decades of intense religious debate, civil conflict and massive social change. Key to this foment was the newly opened and dynamic print culture of the city, and Milton was forefront amongst those who defended the liberated presses.

During the period before 1642 publishing was closely controlled and monitored by the Crown; censorship was a fact of life. However the Star Chamber, which carried out this task, collapsed due to the breakdown of royal authority after the outbreak of the war between King and Parliament in 1642. As a consequence the presses boomed and publication went through the roof. A key element of this was the exponential increase in news. Before 1642 access to news was controlled; the years following saw the birth of the newspaper as we might recognise it in the guise of cheap, populist newsbooks such as Mercurius Britannicus or The Man in the Moon. However, Parliament attempted to reimpose censorship in 1643, and Areopagitica is written as a response to this move. Milton berates Parliament for trying to stem the tide of information.

Milton does not pretend to authoritative knowledge through debate, but merely a better and more enlightened conception. His discussion of the public nature of printed books is situated within a Ciceronian discourse of advice and reasoned persuasion. The forum for debate has a literal and conceptual pertinence; books have a concrete and material status as carriers of thought and opinion, and they inhabit and create a particular space. Milton’s conception of the power of this space, the forum for reasoned debate which will encourage a movement to right government and the perfection of the species, is predicated upon a humanist notion that all books are good and that reason is paramount. It also rests on a notion of free market economics which emphasises that the marketplace will settle according to the demand of informed and intelligent consumers. He does not argue for complete openness – libel and blasphemy will still be dealt with – but claims that a truly free society has an open press. Famously, he saw books as having some kind of vital life: ‘For Books are not absolutely dead things, but doe contain a potencie of life in them to be as active as that soule was whose progeny they are’. Furthermore, he argues that books are almost more important than people; that reason is most useful to a society and the destruction or censorship of reason can destroy us: ‘And yet on the other hand unlesse warinesse be us’d, as good almost kill a Man as kill a good Book; who kills a Man kills a reasonable creature, Gods Image; but hee who destroyes a good Booke, kills reason it selfe, kills the Image of God, as it were in the eye. Many a man lives a burden to the Earth; but a good Booke is the pretious life-blood of a master spirit, imbalm’d and treasur’d up on purpose to a life beyond life. Milton’s impassioned claims for the power of open publication and truth is resonant now; surely debates over the control of information in any kind can benefit from reading his rational, direct, and persuasive writings.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

toying with evelyn Waugh (vile bodies) and the poetry of the Bluestocking set (Hannah More, et al) for the next column. the bluestockings are extremely important but I’m not happy with writing about them as a group as it is kind of tokenistic. Waugh is a tart, vicious writer that everyone thinks is cute (generally because of Brideshead).


went to see a play that was lost then reclaimed last week, Noel Coward’s Vortex (starring mr Will Young). really quite shockingly bad as a piece of drama. nice set, though. maybe I’ll do something theatrical for a change – there are loads of fab plays that haven’t been thought about for ages (Fielding’s Grub Street Opera, or Shelley’s The Cenci).



Thursday, January 25, 2007

tech stuff

<a href="" rel="me">Technorati Profile</a>