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?

Monday, September 25, 2006

Time Out Derek Raymond column

Forgotten Classics
Derek Raymond, He Died with His Eyes Open (1984)

Derek Raymond, the pseudonym of Robin Cook, is generally credited with creating a peculiarly British kind of noir. His bracing books are nasty, dark and violent, and it is probably no surprise that his crime novels were first appreciated in France before becoming popular in Britain. His books have the sensibility of the best of French noir from the 60s and 70s, amoral and filled with everyday evil like a Manchette novel or a Melville film, but with a particularly British sensibility. The novels are set in dirty, seedy London and the characters are washed up failures, prostitutes, thieves and perverts all trying to get ahead in a vile, hopeless country that is falling apart. Yet even in this dross there can be a certain lyricism, and Cook’s prose can make amazing stylistic leaps without once losing its balance: ‘He spoke with a South London accent that guttered in his throat like a flame in a cracked chimney’.
He Died with His Eyes Open starts with a body being found just off Hanger Lane, and is set in drinking clubs and broken blocks of flats from Battersea to Lewisham. The body is that of a failed near-alcoholic writer, Charlie Staniland; the mainstream police do not care to investigate too much, and the responsibility falls to a minor officer from the Department of Unexplained Deaths. Staniland left behind his thoughts on numerous cassette tapes, and it from these that the detective pieces together his tragically pathetic life as well as the multiple banal reasons for his death. The scenes and the characters have a pleasingly authentic heft to them, and Cook deploys the tropes of the noir in such a strongly British way – snotty and unpleasant, dull, drab and pointless – that you barely notice the generic rules being adhered to. The country he presents – or, rather, the vicious city that he gives us – is covered in dogshit and full of broken people going nowhere. He anticipates James Ellroy and David Peace, amongst others, in his terrifying drive to see (and show us) the skull beneath the skin.
Cook once claimed that having an ‘Eton background is a terrific help if you’re into vice at all’ (having dropped out at sixteen), and he certainly lived a life of faded grandeur and near-criminal Soho bohemia in true public school style. He was variously a pornographer, novelist, gambler, Italian anarchist politician, labourer and smuggler; he spent time in prison in Spain, and hung out with friends of the Krays and with Beat poets. The character of Staniland in He Died with His Eyes Open, the doomed romantic toff with a love of the lowlife, draws on Cook’s own biography in many ways. Much of the book is given over to transcripts of the murdered man’s taped meditations on the bleakness of life and a world without love. The unnamed detective certainly becomes entranced and influenced by Staniland’s words, and claims that ‘He had made me care about what I was in a way that I didn’t know I could’. Staniland’s outlook on life becomes increasingly depressed, and the pun of the novel’s title refers to his physical state in death but also the fact that he attains an insight into existence which leads him to seek to end his life; his murderers claim he nearly begs them to kill him, so disillusioned has he become.
The protagonist’s journey, buffeted by demands for vengeance and a thirst for truth, is not towards understanding and rapprochement in this book, as you might expect from a detective novel, but to a bleak understanding of the emptiness of everything and the banality of evil: ‘He had framed the question that finally mattered in the two lines he had quoted on a cassette […] What shall we be,/ When we aren’t what we are?’ He Died with His Eyes Open is, like Get Carter, a supreme example of how nasty Britain actually is.

He Died with His Eyes Open is republished by Serpent’s Tail in September

Friday, September 22, 2006

Under the Net

I'm currently reading Iris Murdoch's Under the Net (1954). There is a great sequence about the problem of language: 'The whole language is a machine for making falsehoods'. Murdoch's novel combines sharp wit with a disarmingly lowkey but dextrous prose style ('Astonishingly soon the daylight came, like a diffused mist') and there is a constant philosophical inquiry underlying the entire project. She's a perfect forgotten classic, well known but unread.

Monday, September 11, 2006

A Confederacy of Dunces

The ultimate, I'd argue, forgotten classic - John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces follows the fortunes of the horrific Ignatius C. Reilly as he waddles around New Orleans dispensing misanthropic wisdom, avoiding work and arguing with his mother. Reilly is an awful, horrible creature with little to redeem him other than a savage, black wit and an unshakeable belief in himself. He is a true Rabelaisian character, fat and greedy and sexually twisted. Reilly is awful but his cynicism allows Kennedy Toole to examine in some depth the plodding, bleak grimness of life. This use of a character in such a blunt and Juvenalian satirical style is often described as Swiftian. Indeed the title of the novel itself is from Swift - 'When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him' - and sarcastically sums up Reilly's attitude to the world as well as poignantly reminding us that the novel itself was never published in the authors' lifetime but came out some years after he committed suicide. He was posthumously awarded the 1981 Pulitzer prize.

Patrick Hamilton

I'm currently reading The Slaves of Solitude (1943) by Patrick Hamilton, the great forgotten man of 1930s and 1940s fiction. Hamilton's maybe best known nowadays for the films of his work - Gaslight with Anton Walbrook, and Hitchcock's famous experimental film Rope. There is an article on filming Hamilton's work (mainly about Rope) by Iain Sinclair here. Hamilton's prose is accomplished and sparkling, 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 borderling alcoholic whose obsessive drinkign and relationships combine to fray his hold on reality. Hamtilson's protagonists are fearful and sensitive, worried and prevailed 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'