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?

Wednesday, May 31, 2006

Lolly Willowes


I have just finished my column about Warner’s Lolly Willowes. I’ll post a longer version in a couple of weeks after it is published. It really is a great novel, and deserves more attention (you can buy the latest (if 10 years old) Virago edition on Amazon, there’s a search box below, hinthint). Warner, too, is someone that deserves a whole lot more attention. She was a lesbian communist biographer poet novelist, who also wrote a guidebook to Somerset. What a great lady. Her seven novels are relatively easy to find in libraries or booksites. She also wrote a large number of short stories.

 

She was for a long time the lover of Valentine Ackland, a relatively unconsidered poet and another worthy of our attention. They wrote poems together, publishing Whether a Dove or Seagull in 1934 (an article about Ackland is here: http://books.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1778230,00.html and one of her lovely poems is here: http://books.guardian.co.uk/departments/poetry/story/0,,1778987,00.html).

 

 

Sunday, May 28, 2006

robert mccrum

Robert Mccrum has written in the Observer today about the decline of the
Great British Literary Novel
(http://observer.guardian.co.uk/review/story/0,,1784465,00.html). There are
many things in his piece that I don't really agree with (his account of the
decline of the 'literary'/ 'English' novel in the 60s either allows Tom
Wolfe too much influence in the UK or ignores the Americans like Thomas
Pynchon and John Updike). His account of the rise of the celebrity author is
interesting. The concept that the writer is bigger than the work and that
the novel has become in thrall to the culture of celebrity is suggestive and
problematic at the same time. In particular, for this blog, it raises the
possibility of 'instant' forgotten classics, books that have mayfly lives
due to the dynamics of celebritisation (his example is Gautam Malkani's
Londonstani, hyped and paid for but quickly forgotten; you could add books
like Alex Garland's The Beach, Monica Ali's Brick Lane, DBC Pierre's Vernon
God Little, all interesting works on various levels and indicative cultural
phenomena but unlikely to last particularly, kind of Chantelle lit.).

great american novel

hear some of my friends and other people I don't know talking about novels:
http://www.radioopensource.org/the-great-american-novel/

non-fiction

It is interesting to think about forgotten classics that aren't novels - an
obvious one for me is drama (it is a big Shaw anniversary this year but is
anyone doing anything to celebrate him?). I was also thinking about big
non-fiction books. This might include critical academic milestones - does
anyone read F.R Leavis or G. Wilson Knight any more? I read AJP Taylor ages
ago but is he now at all important? Academia is obsessed with moving on
sharpish and I'll admit that I view anything published before 1980 with
suspicion... How about in science, where things aren't just discounted but
disproven? However, I'm more motivated to think about popular non-fiction
books, which can be extremely time-specific (the kind of equivalent of
Michael Moore's Stupid White Men, those books you come across in second hand
shops or on market stalls and realise sold millions of copies though you've
never heard of them) or just overly fashionable (will anyone understand the
fuss made of Schott's Miscellany in 10 years). There are, however, loads of
volumes of popular history and science and travel and biography and literary
criticism that have been unfairly overlooked and that we should revisit -
Antonia Fraser, Lytton Strachey, Bruce Chatwin, Pevsner, William Shirer, to
name just a few....

Monday, May 22, 2006

Sylvia Townsend Warner

I'm going to be writing about Lolly Willowes (1926) for June's column; in the meantime, here is the website of the charming society dedicated to her work: http://www.townsendwarner.com/

Friday, May 19, 2006

excellent booksites

bookmunch.co.uk
spikemagazine.com
 
go read!
 

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The expanded version of my Time Out 'Forgotten Classics' column for May: William Somerset Maugham


Forgotten Classics: W. Somerset Maugham, Cakes and Ale; or, the Skeleton in the Closet (1930)

 

William Somerset Maugham was the epitome of the professional writer. After the runaway success of his first novel, Lisa (1897) he would write for a living for a further 65 years. As such he is both important as much for his popularity (which was vast) as his longevity (his final book of memoirs appear in 1962); at a conservative estimate he wrote some 55 books, often two or three a year. He was also a prodigious playwright. His books were immensely popular and sold hugely; the scale of his reach as a writer is wide.

Maugham is significant because of his eye for detail, his clipped prose and his cynical, aloof authorial voice. He was criticised by the modernists yet he outlived them all to witness the end of empire and two world wars. In Cakes and Ale he says of his fictional eminent novelist Edward Driffield ‘His outstanding merit was not the realism that gave vigour to his work […] it was his longevity’. Maugham said that he himself was ‘in the very first row of the second raters’. Such modesty belies his ability to write directly and with such assurance. Furthermore, it is clear from Cakes and Ale that Maugham had a very sharp eye for the absurdities of English cultural life.

Cakes and Ale is a delightfully tart, meandering meditation on what it means to be an author. It is a fine novel that should be read; furthermore, Maugham’s comments on the fickleness of literary celebrity and longevity are prescient and amusing. He sees clearly that books are famous because of who tells you to like them, and that authors are ‘good’ because they are said to be.

The novel consists of two stories that are interwoven. The narrator, a minor novelist called William Ashenden, is asked to lunch by a more significant (or critically acclaimed) writer Alroy Kear. Kear has been asked to write the biography of Edward Driffield, an eminent novelist who has recently died (Driffield is generally assumed to be a portrait of Thomas Hardy, though Maugham denied this strenuously). Ashenden had known Driffield in his youth, and the occasion of the memoirs prompts him to think back to his experiences with the eminent writer and, more importantly, with his vivacious muse (and first wife) Rosie.

Driffield wrote vigorous realist novels in his youth and stuffier books in his later period, and after he stopped writing became acclaimed as the best writer in English. His status as the grand old man of English letters is mainly due to the influence of various tasteful women, and particularly his second wife. She forces him to act the part (even though he really doesn’t want to). He is banned from the local pub and forced to have dinner with wealthy aristocrats as befits his station. When he visits as part of one of these parties, Ashenden is surprised by Driffield winking at him and poking his tongue out when no-one is looking. Cakes and Ale, then, counterpoints Ashenden’s memories of the reality of events with the creation of a literary myth. Driffield’s novels have been made tasteful, and his reputation is going to be furthered by a memoir that, in Kear’s words, will be ‘like a portrait by Van Dyck, with a good deal of atmosphere, you know, and a certain gravity, and with a sort of aristocratic distinction […] a sort of intimate life, with a lot of those little details that make people feel warm inside’. The writing, he concedes, will require ‘tact’. It is this ‘tact’ that Maugham finds contemptible. What becomes clear in the reading of the novel is that Ashenden is writing his own version of events down in order to prick the particular pompous bubble that Kear is creating for Driffield. When told that he used to sing music-hall songs Kear comments ‘After all, when you’re drawing a man’s portrait you must get the values right; you only confuse the impression if you put in stuff that’s all out of tone’.

The title of the novel demonstrates Maugham’s contempt for this obscuring of reality (and constructing a ‘tasteful’ author to worship): ‘Dost thou think because thou art virtuous there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ is Sir Toby Belch’s riposte to Malvolio in Twelfth Night. Maugham uses the reference to mock a virtuous literary establishment attempting to ignore the rude reality of the working- and peasant- class writer. The ‘Skeleton in the closet’ – Rosie Driffield – represents the raucous, vital, festive spirit of England (she is something of a caricature) which is being stifled by the good taste of the contemporary critic and novelist. There is also something wistful in the writing of the novel that suggests that in looking back to former lives one realises that, yes, the festive time has been lost.

The events of Cakes and Ale are very closely related to Maugham’s own life. He was effectively an only child (his siblings were much older), brought up by his Uncle in Whitstable following the death of his father. He spent five years in London training to be a doctor. In these respects the novel is similar to Maugham’s earlier Of Human Bondage; Maugham himself is explicit about the similarities between the novels in his preface, written to answer the furore that greeted the initial publication. Cakes and Ale is not, he clearly says, about Thomas Hardy; ‘all the characters we create are but copies of ourselves’. The characters are composites, he argues, claiming that he is not attacking anyone in particular. The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that he is attacking no single figure but mocking the entire preposterous collection.

His enduring legacy is to be found in the Somerset Maugham award for new fiction.

 

 

 

 
 

Friday, May 12, 2006

radclyffe hall

From Andy M: Oh the memories of reading, and re-reading Radclyffe Hall's The Well of Loneliness. Actually - the first 3rd, a fairly trad., Victorian 'country house' Bildungsroman is almost readable. It gets worse though - Id say to the point of unreadability, but it has the same sort of fascination that road crashes or surgical documentaries have. Someone was going to write the first lesbian campaigning novel; pity it's Hall. Well meaning in its day, but truly truly grotesque! Go read it.. .
 
Also: Arnold Bennett's The Old Wive's Tale: forced to read it by a stodgy, gout-suffering lecturer while I was at university: totally loved it! Its got - in a long segment - an entirely gripping account of the impact of the Siege of Paris.

Is it worth pondering on the 'why' of 'forgotten classics' as well as the 'what'? In Bennett's case (and vanloads of other popular late 19thC / Edwardian writers) it is the academy's obsession with so-called literary modernism (and that opens a can of class-based elitist worms!).  

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Time Out column, May

May's Time Out Forgotten Classics column on Somerset Maugham is in this week's issue. I'll post a longer version of the column here early next week, meantime there are some thoughts on Maugham in April's archive.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

sylvia townsend warner versus alan sillitoe

Tough decisions about June's Time Out column: lesbian stalinist
(warner) or working class hero (sillitoe)? I'm inclined to Warner as I
think she is a great writer and I'd like to not write my first two
columns about men (that said, I'd be writing my first two columns about
writers from the late 20s/ early 30s which is similarly problematic); I
think Sillitoe is a staggering writer and deserving of great praise
(plus Saturday Night Sunday Morning can remind us that binge drinking
asbo culture isn't exactly new). Fans of Sillitoe (and indeed, Sillitoe
himself) might query whether he is a forgotten or neglected writer; I'd
argue that I teach an awful lot of students who are interested in
working-class culture, masculinity and Britishness, and few of them
have read him (although they all should).

I've also been thinking about how skewed my view of all this is,
writing from an academic perspective. I have colleagues who have read
all of Warner (and indeed who write about her), and colleagues who
spend their life working on obscure novelists from the eighteenth- to
the twentieth- centuries. Just who are we keeping these writers alive
for? (that is a rhetorical question, btw).

Finally, Adam Thorpe's new collection of short stories (Is This The Way
You Said?), out from Cape in June, has a couple of fun stories related
to this blog including 'Green Trainers', about a postgraduate toiling
to understand a long forgotten Edwardian poet, and 'Karaoke', about a
poet discovering a 'lost' Victorian novel which turns out to be simply
a tissue of classical quotations and not the 'English Proust' that he
was hoping for.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Satanic Verses

I have read Satanic Verses and I loved it. I have to confess that it was not at all what I was expecting and that really it rivals Midnight's Children.... It was one of those books I thought I *should* read but not that I would actually enjoy it.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Lost Books


The NY Times has a review of Stuart Kelly's 'The Book of Lost Books', which sounds good, on books lost to posteirty: 'Homer's "Margites," a humorous epic about a fool, who, in Plato's words, "knew many things, but all badly"; the Arthurian epics contemplated by both Dryden and Milton but never written; Laurence Sterne's never completed "Sentimental Journey Through France and Italy," which concludes with one of the most famous unfinished sentences in literary history ("So that when I stretch'd out my hand, I caught hold of the Fille de Chambre's —") ; Lord Byron's supposedly explosive "Memoirs," which his publisher, executor and biographer had burned because, as one critic put it, they were "fit only for the brothel and would have damned" the poet "to everlasting infamy"; the novel, provisionally titled "Double Exposure" or "Double Take," that Sylvia Plath was reportedly working on before her suicide in 1963.'

It's at http://www.nytimes.com/2006/05/05/books/05book.html?ex=1147492800&en=13837b24e08b9a0e&ei=5070&emc=eta1%22

classix nouveaux

While I was on the staff at Time Out I tried to get people interested in doing a series: Time Out London Classics. We would reprint great London novels and short story collections that had fallen out of print for one reason or another. My first suggested titles included the following:

• I Was Dora Suarez by Derek Raymond (or one of the other Factory novels)
• Robinson by Christopher Petit
• Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes (or another MacInnes novel)
• High Rise by JG Ballard
• The Body by William Sansom (also his collections of stories)
• After London by Richard Jefferies
• Vail by Trevor Hoyle

Time Out had already ventured into fiction in partnership with Penguin. Maria Lexton had edited The Time Out Book of London Short Stories. I added volumes for New York and Paris as well as London Vol 2. Then there were two volumes of Neonlit: Time Out Book of New Writing, published by Quartet. But, alas, no one at Penguin could be convinced that Time Out London Classics was a good idea. One or two of those books are back in print now anyway, and I have no idea if they qualify as classics. I hate the idea of a canon and would worry if a book I championed was coralled into one, but I'd rather good books be in print than available only from secondhand bookshops according to luck.

time out column

The May time out 'forgotten classics' column will come out in the next week's issue, hopefully; a few days after i'll post an extended version here on the site.
 
In conversation yesterday a friend suggested Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses for the column, on the basis that no-one read it at the time and really no one is particularly bothered with it now (especially when the earlier novels are so much better). Other suggestions I've had recently include Boris Pasternak, Carson McCullers, Edmund Crispin and Michael Arlen.
 
It is interesting watching people make their decisionsn and finding out what is close to their hearts.