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?

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’.