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?

Friday, July 28, 2006

holiday reading 2

Jean-Patrick Manchette, The Prone Gunman, trans. James Brook (to be republished by Serpent’s Tail in November)


Manchette is the master of stripped-down, masculine French noir. Much like the films of Jean-Pierre Melville*, whose clipped, amoral style he echoes, Manchette deals with the intricate details of criminal life whilst eschewing any emotion or judgement. The Prone Gunman follows professional assassin Martin Terrier (often just referred to as ‘the man’, his anonymity and amorality reflected in a stylistic trick) as he attempts to go straight. His employers, naturally, desire him to stay on and chaos follows their attempts first to reclaim him and then to control him. The novel is cool, taut and brief. Manchette is generally underconsidered – as, indeed, is the French tradition in general – when noir or hard-boiled fiction is discussed (flashier Americans generally dominate) but he is well worth taking a look at.



*if you don’t know Melville, seek out Le Cercle Rouge or Le Samourai.

Zane Grey

I just picked up a 1957 pulp edition of The Lone Star Ranger by Zane Grey, a real boy’s own tale of border and frontier. Here is the opening: ‘So it was in him, then – an inherited fighting instinct, a driving intensity to kill. He was the last of the Duanes, that old fighting stock of Texas. But not the memory of his dead father, nor the pleading of his soft-voiced mother, nor the warning of this uncle who stood before him now, had brought to Buck Duane so much realization of the dark passionate stain in his blood. It was the recurrence, a hundredfold increased in power, of a strange emotion that for the last three years had arisen in him.’ Powerful, hard-boiled stuff!



Holiday reading 1

Alan Garner, The Weirdstone of Brisingamen


This lovely piece of English faerie draws on all manner of archetypes in order to tell its story of an England threatened by an ancient evil. There are wizards and dwarves and shape-shifters and strange goblin type characters called Svarts. Garner’s tale takes place on Alderley Edge and the surrounding area, and demonstrates a clear love of the countryside but also a sense of its eerieness. Colin and Susan are saved from strange pursuers by a Wizard who relates them the legend of Fundindelve, where a virtuous army sleeps awaiting the hour that they must fight Nastrond. They are guarded by strong magic sealed within Wierdstone by Firefrost, but the Wierdstone has disappeared and must be found lest the world be destroyed. It is a neat adventure story with cave rescues and duels, but also an attempt in many ways to distil the darker tones of Tolkein into a children’s book.


Thursday, July 27, 2006

Alan Sillitoe, Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958)

Alan Sillitoe is generally included as part of the ‘angry young man’ movement of the late 1950s, novelists and dramatists who wrote with passion and polemic energy. He is also part of a wider cultural phenomenon of 1955-65 which focussed attention on the working-class. From the mid-50s onwards the post-war boom, increased prosperity and the beginnings of a youth culture fostered various movements which were interested in attacking the establishment and representing the lives of those ordinary, dispossessed workers who were generally ignored by higher culture. This interest collects together figures as diverse as Lindsay Anderson and Karel Reisz (whose ‘Free Cinema’ documentary movement was massively influential), Ken Loach, John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Keith Waterhouse, Nell Dunn, and John Braine. This fascination with the rawness of working-class life provoked debates which still rages – is making the anti-hero an icon just a way of controlling them; is sensationalist presentation simply caricaturing?

Saturday Night and Sunday Morning is a raw, aggressive novel that is unapologetic in its presentation of ‘real’ life. Its opening demonstrates how the protagonist, Arthur Seaton, could teach contemporary binge-drinkers and ASBO-holders a thing or two: ‘With eleven pints of beer and seven small gins playing hide-and-seek inside his stomach, he fell from the topmost stair to the bottom’. He then drinks another pint and then vomits in someone’s face before fighting his way out. Arthur works at a lathe in a bicycle factory, making just enough money to drink his way through the weekend. He fishes, fights, sleeps with other worker’s wives, goes to the pictures, drinks, works. He has no ambition to speak of other than to look after himself. He hates anyone with any pompous authority, and only looks out for himself and, at a push, his family.

Arthur’s bleak outlook on life is fuelled by experience in the Army and at the hands of the factory; he is a cog in a wheel, ignored by society in the main. It isn’t until he is badly beaten by soldiers that he reflects on the emptiness of his existence: ‘He felt a lack of security. No place existed in all the world that could be called safe, and he knew for the first time in his life that there had never been any such thing as safety, and never would be, the difference being that now he knew it as a fact, whereas before it was a natural unconscious state’. After this event he settles down a bit more, finding a single girl to get engaged to. He reflects at the close of the book ‘Well, it’s a good life and a good world, all said and done, if you don’t weaken’.

Little happens in the novel, but its portrayal and celebration of working-class life eschews mere caricaturing in order to say, in an up front way, this is how it is and we don’t care what you think. The prose is flat, in the now, inflected by dialect, rarely more than perfunctorily descriptive. It is marvellously sharp and direct. Sillitoe never romanticises, and rarely editorialises; the novel is more interested in the politics of putting this life centre stage. A brilliant section near the end of the novel consists of the Christmas celebrations at Arthur’s aunt’s house. Sillitoe manages to make them bittersweet and inclusive, communicating a sense of belonging and rightness that is at once moving and alienating. In comparison the horrifying scene of his married lover taking a scalding bath to abort a child is uncompromising and harsh. Sillitoe and his contemporaries are now read as period-pieces, but this searing novel shows that they were vital, exciting voices that exerted huge cultural and social influence.



Sylvia Townsend Warner, Lolly Willowes, or The Loving Huntsman (1926)

Sylvia Townsend Warner was a true polymath – New Yorker short-story writer, scholar of Tudor Church Music, biographer, poet translator of Proust and writer of guide books. She was an ardent Communist and openly lived with the poet Valentine Ackland for nearly 40 years. She is a great English writer and one that should be remembered far more than she is. Her writing is clear and sharp, and her novels are immensely distinctive. Lolly Willowes is her first book, a subversive fantasia in which women are urged to take power and resist ‘an existence doled out to you by others’. It is magical in a kind of faerie way, celebrating the sometimes mundane reality of the supernatural and its ability to transform the everyday.

Laura Willowes, from a good if unexciting county family, comes to live in London after the death of her father. Lolly is the name given to her by her various nieces and nephews, the children she spends her time looking after on behalf of her brothers. The real Laura Willowes, with all her thoughts and ideas, is lost in family duty. She spends some twenty years in London being virtuous and slowly having her natural verve dulled and diminished. Finally Lolly has a revelation and sees her family household in London for what it really is: ‘half hidden under their accumulations – accumulations of prosperity, authority, daily experience. They were carpeted with experience. No new event could set jarring feet on them but they would absorb and muffle the impact’. Her new resolve and distress at the way that London has sapped her leads her to take lodgings in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Mop. Lolly reverts to her real name of Laura in the countryside (Lolly is what she is when an aunt and therefore defined by others). She finds a quiet independence and mounting self-definition in the sleepy village. She throws away her map of the countryside, rejecting masculine defining knowledge for a countrified understanding of the local area, an empathy with the place she lives in. She is alone on the hillside in the dark when she comes closest to understanding the great sadness and horror in her soul; the experience leaves her ‘changed, and knew it. She was humbler, and more simple’.

Yet she is not left to herself, and her nephew Titus soon comes to live in Great Mop in order to write a book on Vasari. He is nice but boorish, a man who loves ‘the country as if it were a body’. His unacknowledged assumption of such ownership contrasts clearly with Laura’s unconditional love: ‘Most of all she hated him for imposing his kind of love on her. Since he had come to Great Mop she had not been allowed to love in her own way’. Yet she is not meek any longer; soon after this she rather innocently makes what she thinks is a compact with the devil to maintain the quiet solitude she loves (the devil’s form is initially a kitten who bites her). Satan agrees to rid her of Titus (he sends bees and a fiancĂ© from London) in exchange for her soul. Her choice to become unsocial, to reject London and the masculine city is evoked in her turn to the devil (‘But in the moment of election, under the stress and turmoil of the hunted Lolly as under a covering of darkness, the true Laura had settled in all unerringly. She had known where to turn’).

The devil is a rather pleasant character, more protective than anything else – he is the ‘loving huntsman’ of the title. Indeed, for all that he is referred to as Satan he is much more like a pagan figure such as Pan, a shepherd of lost souls. Laura considers herself to have become a witch, and attends a midnight pagan Sabbath with the other villagers. The social freedom at this ceremony leads to a number of new relationships (not least the wonder of dancing with Emily, the ‘pasty-faced and anaemic young slattern’ who dances ‘with a fervour that annihilated every misgiving’; she and Laura become ‘fused together […] the contact made her tingle from head to foot’). This energises and liberates Laura, and she escapes the strictures of duty, family, order and civilisation. She tells Satan how much need women have of him: ‘Women have such vivid imaginations, and lead such dull lives. Their pleasure in life is so soon over; they are so dependent upon others, and their dependence soon becomes a nuisance’. Warner uses the figure of Laura to suggest that women are controlled through their relationships with men, that they have no liberty to express themselves. Making her central character a witch, and a witch who is quite happy to be one, undermines centuries of male caricaturing of the unfettered desires of women as devilish. Laura cries ‘Nothing for them except subjection and plaiting their hair’. The dullness of everyday life for women ‘settles down on one like a fine dust, and by and by the dust is age, settling down […] there is a dreadful kind of dreary immortality about being settled down on by one day after another’.

Laura creates a life for herself by forsaking the things that male society would have her love: children; family; home; ancestry. She finds happiness in the countryside, in becoming a witch: ‘to show our scorn of pretending life’s a safe business, to satisfy our passion for adventure’. The whole experience is ‘to have a life of one’s own, not an existence doled out to you by others’. This liberation is all the more shattering in the novel due to Warner’s careful setting of the scene. Over half the book outlines the cloying dullness of Lolly’s life before she becomes Laura again; the ‘settling down’ experienced by other women is clearly shown to us before being joyously shed. Warner celebrates the ability of the English countryside to effect a revelation in one’s self-definition. She writes in a tradition, stretching back to Rabelais, of the revolutionary spirit of carnival, but also adds to a very English way of thinking about the pagan spirit of the land. Lolly Willowes is a piece of English whimsy much like Kipling’s Puck of Pook’s Hill or the Piper at the Gates of Dawn section of The Wind in the Willows; celebrating the raw, slightly frightening power of the country spirit. It is a deeply satisfying, sweet book, which has extremely important things to say; it is also a stylistic gem, a gentle, great novel.