Karl Miller, 1931-2014: editor, writer, lion of literary Caledonia & Londinium

Karl Miller literary criticGoodnight and good luck to Karl Miller, who passed away last week. The calling of literature, the love of writing and ideas, the encouragement and improvement of writers – none of these could have wished for a better friend than Miller.

In an obituary for the Guardian John Sutherland – who succeeded Miller as Northcliffe Professor of English Literature at University College London – hailed him as ‘the greatest literary editor of his time, and one of the greatest ever.’ Leo Robson in the New Statesman paid tribute to ‘the most influential British literary editor since the Second World War.’ For the Herald Alan Taylor made special and close reference to Scotland’s hold on Miller’s imagination and affection. Miller’s great friend Andrew O’Hagan told the Guardian’s Alison Flood that he was ‘perhaps the last of the great Bloomsbury men … Of course, there are brilliant writers and editors now, but they live in a world where the squeeze on literary values and on books programmes, on high culture and carefulness, is fearsome and degrading. Karl Miller worked in spite of the market, and he enriched the intellectual life of the country in a thousand ways.’

All of the obits trace Miller’s journey from Ayrshire to Downing College, Cambridge, where he was taught by Leavis, and proceeded to a luminous succession of literary editorships: the Spectator, the New Statesman, the Listener, then – concurrent with his time at UCL – the co-founding of the London Review of Books. The high esteem and affection given to Miller by so many who were taught by him or edited by him is an irreducible mark of a life well spent.

For your correspondent, meanwhile, to have known Miller on the page was quite sufficient to venerate him. Though his published works come second in remembrances of him, I must say that my own case of Miller fandom derives from having discovered his Doubles: Studies in Literary History in paperback during the 1980s and fallen upon it with the particular swoon of one who feels that a book has been written for him and him alone.

Doubles is now offered, we are proud to say, as a Faber Find. Likewise Cockburn’s Millennium (1975), Miller’s great study of the Scottish judge, orator, historian and Whig, winner of the James Tait Black memorial prize. We also offer Miller’s two volumes of memoir, Rebecca’s Vest and Dark Horses; and the essay collection he edited entitled Memoirs of a Modern Scotland, with contributors including Tom Nairn, Hugh MacDiarmid, Muriel Spark, William McIlvanney and Stuart Hood.

You can see Karl Miller’s influence in the Finds list without having to look too far. As Leo Robson notes, two of his favoured contributors at the New Statesman were Brigid Brophy, a dozen of whose titles we now offer, and the jazz critic ‘Francis Newton’ (Eric Hobsbawm), whose collected works are forthcoming. Emma Tennant’s Two Women of London: The Strange Case of Ms Jekyll and Mrs Hyde is also a Find, and is dedicated to Miller. The last time I was in Miller’s company was when he kindly attended a little reissue drinks that we threw for Emma in Notting Hill. Emma, though born in London, was the eldest daughter of the second Baron Glenconner and spent much of her childhood at the family seat of Glen House, a neo-Gothic baronial castle in Peeblesshire. When I asked Emma why she dedicated her novel to Karl she told me this:

Karl very kindly gave me huge encouragement from the beginning and had a tremendous input into everything I did, particularly to do with Scotland and ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’, which is the Scottish thing to be suffering from. I think Karl’s work and his obsession with the double completely set me off – because it was so much what you wanted to read about, and you felt that no-one had quite talked about before. The theme felt very Scottish, and Karl kept on saying to me that that was what I must remember I was…

Ah, that ‘Caledonian antisyzygy’ – what G. Gregory Smith, in his Scottish Literature: Character and Influence (1919), calls ‘a reflection of the contrasts which the Scot shows at every turn, in his political and ecclesiastical history, in his polemical restlessness, in his adaptability.’ Shall we remember Miller, then, as a great Scot as well as a grand panjandrum of literary London? Seems fair enough, as he could be both things simultaneously. One of the nicest moments in Leo Robson’s obituary is when Mark Lawson recalls his experience as a UCL undergraduate of attending Miller’s lectures and routinely hearing ‘what we assumed was a running gag that all writers were really Scots. After hearing him lecture on the influence of Burns on Robert Lowell, we got him the next week on Chekhov and he began: ‘Ladies and gentlemen, it may not surprise you that my theme today is Chekhov as a fundamentally’ (long pause) ‘Caledonian writer…’’

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David Stacton’s ‘Tom Fool’: the political novel, the American landscape, & the pursuit of lost causes

TOM FOOL
by David Stacton
Paperback / ebook

tomfoolOur current moment is not, by anyone’s estimation, a great time for politics and politicians. Even if polling suggests that most British people find their local MP to be, at worst, just about OK, the general level of public regard for our elected representatives seems to be fixed lower than a snake’s belly. At Finds Towers we still consider the political life to be a noble calling in any democracy; also that most elected politicians do their best in testing circumstances, just like the rest of us… Moreover we think of politics and its dramas and dilemmas as the grist of great imaginative works, and not just of the order of Antigone or Coriolanus: the novel, too, has often ventured into the sphere of politics and those who practise it, with penetrative and rewarding results.

A year ago or so, your correspondent tried out a ‘Top Ten of Politicians in Literature’ for the Nudge website, including the creations of authors ranging from Trollope and Henry Adams to Yukio Mishima and Gore Vidal. Back then, though. I hadn’t read David Stacton’s Tom Fool, now available in Finds as paperback and ebook. Had I done so then Tom would assuredly have made the list, for Stacton’s book, originally published in 1962, is a terrific accomplishment, the final panel in a triptych of novels for which Stacton drew from the history of America, following A Signal Victory and The Judges of the Secret Court. That said, the book nearly didn’t see the light at all, as a consequence of Stacton having drawn inspiration from relatively recent real events and living persons. (A similar appropriation of l’actualité for fictive purposes put Yukio Mishima out of pocket for his contemporaneous novel of Japanese politics, After the Banquet.)

Tom Fool presents a problem’, wrote Faber’s great acquiring editor Charles Monteith to the (later infamous) libel lawyer Peter Carter-Ruck in February 1961. ‘Though it is a novel and presented as such, it is in fact an impressionistic presentation of Wendell Wilkie, the defeated Republican presidential candidate in 1940.’ Monteith was concerned that Stacton, in creating ‘synthetic figures’ to stand in for Wilkie (‘Tom Fool’) and other key campaign personnel (such as Wilkie’s top aide Russell Davenport, who might be discerned in the book through the character of ‘Sideboard’) might have run the risk of perpetrating libel against the living (if not Wilkie himself, who died of a coronary thrombosis in 1944, aged 52.)

Monteith’s concerns proved unnecessary, but were notable in the sense that Stacton, having tended to travel several centuries back in time for his other historical novels – such as Remember Me – was here treating real events and individuals located well within the memory of readers. As typical with Stacton, though, his version of the ‘political novel’ was not a tale of scandal, corruption and chicanery (as are most mainstream fictional attempts to dramatise that world and its denizens.) Stacton told Monteith that he considered Tom Fool ‘the saddest book I wrote yet’; and it is certainly a kind of elegy for his country and the conduct of its democracy on the national stage.

Wilkie certainly makes an interesting model for a protagonist: an ill-fated figure, a liberal conservative (formerly, indeed, a Democrat) who emerged through the middle of a four-way scrap for the Republican nomination, and stood against Franklin D. Roosevelt while sharing his readiness to enter the war against Hitler, though wishing to annul the President’s populist New Deal on grounds of inefficiency. These unpropitious circumstances did not put Wilkie in a good position to campaign as a ‘change candidate’ with a united party at his back; and Stacton’s Tom Fool is seen accordingly as a man engaged in a Sisyphean endeavour.

David Stacton

David Stacton

The greater part of the novel finds Tom Fool on an epic campaign stump across America by rail, covering thirty-one states in fifty days. But his encounters with the electorate are generally dispiriting – he meets banality and indifference at best, hostility and brickbats at worst – and he is hardly more heartened by the team he has at his back, especially the husband-and-wife PR duo known as ‘the Pattersons’, who give the impression of having their eyes fixed ahead on future campaigns with better-fancied candidates. The second half of the novel sees the defeated Fool accept an appointment from President Roosevelt as a sort of global ambassador-at-large, visiting the world’s new powers in a converted US Army bomber (travels which, in life, formed the substance of Wilkie’s own 1943 book One World.) Stacton’s protagonist, though, finds nothing too endearing in Russia or China, leaving him to ponder instead ‘who would get the world’ if not America.

The melancholy of Tom Fool arises from its titular protagonist’s unrequited love of country and sense of its spiritual fall. ‘The land is enormous, noble, settled, compact and proud’, he reflects. ‘Would that the people who live it on were.’ He finds his tour of thirty-one states ‘heartbreaking’ in that regard – there is no communion with the electorate, only his advanced suspicion of being one among a smaller number, ‘those who have been made foreigners in their own country, the people who remember the way it used to be.’ Tom Fool’s conservative romance of the American landscape would seem to call for fellow Americans who feel the same near-spiritual connection to it. David Stacton once professed to an interviewer that he had rather heartsore memories of growing up in a ‘sensuous and then unspoilt’ American landscape, ‘whose loss has made my generation and sort of westerner a race of restless wanderers.’ From that you may gauge the degree to which Stacton and his imagined Tom Fool were comrades in exile.

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The Great Faber Finds Summer Reads Giveaway

summer-readingUpdate 25.07.2014: The following competition is now closed.

We are about to shut up Finds Towers for the summer, pack a bag full of odd-sized vintage paperbacks and catch a plane to somewhere sunlit and contemplative. In case you haven’t got your own bag packed yet we can, perhaps, make it all a bit easier for you. We are giving away a copy of each of the following thirty (that’s 30) superior Faber Finds titles.

FICTION

chandThe Bell-Boy by James Hamilton Paterson
‘Few books since E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (whose formal perfection this novel shares) have conveyed more intensely the allure (and the revulsion) the East holds for Westerners.’ New York Times

Dancing with Mermaids by Miles Gibson
‘An imaginative tour de force and a considerable stylistic achievement … Gibson has few equals among his contemporaries.’ Time Out

A Far Horizon by Meira Chand
‘Chand tells the story in a direct and compelling manner. The prose sweeps forward, and she evokes the period beautifully [and] effortlessly.’ Telegraph

I Hear Voices by Paul Ableman
‘The book, not excluding Lolita, which gave me the greatest pride and pleasure to publish.’ Maurice Girodias, Olympia Press

The Missionary’s Wife by Tim Jeal
‘A powerful love story fleshed out with vivid historical detail, narrative tension and subtle post-colonial awareness … remarkably engaging and skilfully told.’ Guardian

jealThe Model by Robert Aickman
‘A must for Aickman fans … A model of eloquent elegant enchantment.’ Robert Bloch, author of Psycho

The Pearlkillers by Rachel Ingalls
‘Like Poe, Rachel Ingalls is more than a master storyteller: She is also a superb artist.’ Los Angeles Times

The Snowball by Brigid Brophy
‘Written with considerable expertise … An air of indulgent, extravagant corruption and decay glitters over the novel.’ Kirkus Reviews

The Sophomore by Barry Spacks
‘A clever, sophisticated novel that is very, very funny. It’s like an American Lucky Jim – at once hilarious, shrewd and very true. A complete delight.’ William Boyd

The White Father by Julian Mitchell
Winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize and the Somerset Maugham Award. ‘An impressively accurate account of British society in the sixties.’ Montreal Gazette

CRIME FICTION

hareAn Artist and a Magician by Hugh Fleetwood
‘It is Hugh Fleetwood’s great ability as a novelist to analyse the world of the rich, to test it with violence and to subtly probe its corruption.’ Peter Ackroyd, Spectator

An English Murder by Cyril Hare
‘Of Cyril Hare’s detective stories my only complaint is, that they are too infrequent.’ Tatler

Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal by Roy Horniman
‘A superb thriller, but also a disturbing study in human nature.’ Simon Heffer

The Paris Trap by Joseph Hone
‘A fine example of a vastly popular genre – the thinking man’s thriller.’ Irish Times

The Rose of Tibet by Lionel Davidson
‘I hadn’t realised how much I had missed the genuine adventure story until I read The Rose of Tibet.’ Graham Greene

NON-FICTION

jenkinsBattling for News by Anne Sebba
‘This superb 1994 history of women reporters… with Sebba’s new preface, highlighting particularly the appalling case of Lara Logan… tracing the careers of journalistic stars including Martha Gellhorn and Rebecca West.’ Independent on Sunday

Capri: Island of Pleasure by James Money
‘I can recommend Capri – Island of Pleasure by James Money, which tells of all the celebrities that have lived on the island over the years.’ TripAdvisor

Landlords to London: The Story of a Capital and its Growth by Simon Jenkins
‘Extremely informative and witty.’ Roy Porter, London: A Social History

Red Hill: A Mining Community by Tony Parker
‘The reader is allowed to enter a secret, remote world which is at times heroic, but more often poignant and lonely.’ Listener

Shops and Shopping 1880-1914: Where and in What Matter the Well-Dressed Englishwoman Bought Her Clothes by Alison Adburgham
A groundbreaking contribution to the social history of retail selling, from its Victorian origins through the subsequent ascent of the ‘department store’

BIOGRAPHY

sebLaura Ashley: A Life by Design by Anne Sebba
‘A moving book. Anne Sebba has written a vivid, true story. She writes with frankness and without frills.’ Sunday Telegraph

Jane Austen by David Nokes
‘[This book] cries out to be read, not alone by fans of Jane Austen but by anyone who enjoys a great, witty, gossipy read.’ Irish Times

Tony Blair: Prime Minister by John Rentoul
‘An extraordinary achievement, flashing with a peculiarly devastating form of sympathy.’ Craig Brown, Mail on Sunday

Disraeli by Robert Blake
‘A huge, scholarly and remarkably readable work which makes us revise vast tracts of our assumptions about nineteenth-century politics.’ Sir Michael Howard, Sunday Times

Vaughan Williams by Simon Heffer
‘A vivid and appealing picture of an irresistibly likeable figure… I enjoyed this little book enormously.’ Spectator

CULTURE/MEDIA/SPORT

punter-127x200Gazza Agonistes by Ian Hamilton
‘By the final whistle Hamilton has [in Paul Gascoigne] sketched a compelling figure: reckless, cocky, twitchy, hyperactive and half bonkers … but with flashes of implausible grace that connect with the dreams of his audience.’ Independent

John Barry: A Sixties Theme – From James Bond to Midnight Cowboy by Eddi Fiegel
The definitive and authorised biography of arguably the most important popular British composer of the 20th century, John Barry (1933-2011)

Like Punk Never Happened by Dave Rimmer
‘Rimmer is among the most entertaining writers ever to pen a rock book.’ Dave Marsh, Rock and Roll Confidential

Starlust: The Secret Fantasies of Fans by Fred Vermorel
‘This book, at first glance full of the fantasies of maniacs, is really full of the wonderful dreams of people just like you and me.’ Pete Townshend

Stick It Up Your Punter! The Uncut Story of the Sun Newspaper by Peter Chippindale and Chris Horrie
‘The funniest book of the year, perhaps of the decade.’ Times

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War, the spirit of Christmas, and Henry Williamson’s ‘A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight’

A studio portrait of Henry Williamson taken in January 1915 while he was on invalid leave from the Western Front.

A studio portrait of Henry Williamson taken in January 1915 while he was on invalid leave from the Western Front.

The Dark Lantern (pbk ebook)
Donkey Boy (pbk ebook)
Young Phillip Maddison (pbk ebook)
How Dear is Life (pbk ebook)
by Henry Williamson

When we remember The Great War, as this year’s centenary gives us such powerful cause to, there are few stories that seem to capture the popular imagination more than that of the ‘Christmas Truce’ on the Western Front in December 1914, when British and German soldiers temporarily ceased hostilities for a day or so and fraternised in No Man’s Land. Contemporary eyewitness is a precious tool for historians, and one man who was there and bore what he saw forever in mind was Henry Williamson – later the celebrated author of Tarka the Otter and many other notable if now neglected works.

Williamson was then a 19-year-old private in the London Rifle Brigade, based at Ploegsteert Wood near Ypres. He wrote to his mother on Boxing Day of 1914, and his letter is available for perusal on the excellent website of the Henry Williamson Society. In it Williamson describes how the sounds of carol singing on Christmas Eve, carrying across No Man’s Land, turned gradually into German voices calling for face-to-face meetings – calls that were heeded, warily at first, by the ‘Tommies’ but which led to extraordinary encounters, as Williamson described to his mother in respect of those enemy combatants he met:

They are landsturmers or landwehr, I think, & Saxons & Bavarians (no Prussians). Many are gentle looking men in goatee beards & spectacles, and some are very big and arrogant looking. I have some cigarettes which I shall keep, & a cigar I have smoked. We had a burial service in the afternoon, over the dead Germans who perished in the ‘last attack that was repulsed’ against us. The Germans put ‘For Fatherland & Freedom’ on the cross. They obviously think their cause is a just one…

The BBC has made available footage of an interview Williamson gave them in 1963 on the subject of his wartime experiences, an extract of which was used in the major series The Great War. The Telegraph has also posted a detailed commentary on the force of his recollections.

Interest in Henry Williamson’s writing is ever-present on the strength of Tarka the Otter, the work that Ted Hughes hailed for giving ‘shape and words to my world, as no book has ever done since.’ And it was in this capacity as the great writer of nature that Williamson was sought out by the BBC at his North Devon eyrie in 1965 for this interview.

However Willliamson’s body of work is far larger and yet more substantive and noteworthy than Tarka alone, and it has suffered from neglect for a fairly unique combination of reasons. To speak only of his writing on war, any interested reader is advised to look at The Wet Flanders Plain, inspired by return visits he made to Flanders in the decade after Armistice; and The Patriot’s Progress, a work that expresses as plangently as any the terrible chasm that war opened up between those who experienced the hell of the Front and those back on ‘civvy street’ who were spared. For Williamson what he went through embedded in him a notion of the essential brotherhood of European fighting men and a burning conviction that might be encapsulated by the slogan ‘Never Again!’

By standard reckoning the work that ought to have secured Williamson’s reputation as a novelist is the 15-volume roman-fleuve he composed between 1951 and 1969, collectively known as A Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight. It begins in Camberwell in 1893 and concludes on Exmoor just after the Second World War. Its principal figures are, first, Richard Maddison, a countryman who comes to London for work and marries a merchant’s daughter; and then, increasingly central, Richard’s son Phillip, a more sensitive soul than his father who first follows him into the insurance business but will find his character forged, perforce, in war. Chronicle has all of Williamson’s strengths, to say the least – the resonant use of his own life as the raw material of fiction, the power to make his memory speak at a high level of descriptive brilliance and lyrical sentence-making. Anthony Burgess, for one, selected the entire sequence for his Ninety-Nine Novels: The Best in English since 1939.

Burgess believed the ‘earlier books’ – The Dark Lantern, Donkey Boy, Young Phillip Maddison, How Dear is Life – were ‘the best’ by dint of their account of ‘Maddison growing up in the near-rural outskirts of London, the England of the period before the First World War most accurately and fragrantly caught.’ But Burgess was also unstinting in his praise of the subsequent four volumes which offer, he believed, ‘one of the most encyclopaedic fictional accounts we have of what the war was like.’ Burgess’s quarrel – and that of critics of the time and of this day – was with the later books and what he and they saw as rebarbative forms of political belief in Williamson that showed themselves in the work to its detriment. We shall look at this argument anew in another post.

For the moment we recommend the newly packaged paperbacks and ebooks of Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight – and also this fine Pinterest page which captures a great deal of the feel of the Williamson oeuvre.

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The delights of Robert Aickman’s rarest fictions: ‘The Late Breakfasters’ and ‘The Model’

NPG x125036; Robert Fordyce Aickman by Ida KarThe Late Breakfasters (1964) by Robert Aickman
Paperback and ebook
The Model (1987) by Robert Aickman
Paperback and ebook

‘All I know comes from books. It’s a wonder I keep my end up as well as I do.’
‘Books are better, I think, most of the time,’ replied Louise. ‘The more you know of life outside them, the less it’s like them. But there’s one problem that you have to solve if you’re to go on profiting from books, and books won’t help you much to solve it.’
‘And that is?’
‘The problem of finding someone, even one single person, you can endure life with. To me it’s acute.’
(From ‘The Late Breakfasters’)

Robert Aickman has been a quintessential Faber Finds author ever since the launch of this list in 2008. This year sees the centenary of his birth, and we have moved our Aickman offerings to Faber’s main list with glorious new cover art and prefaces, along with the additional treat, new to Faber, of his debut collection of strange stories, Dark Entries. But Aickman has not been lost to Faber Finds – oh no – for our own centenary tribute is to proudly add to Finds the two longer works that Aickman completed in his lifetime, The Late Breakfasters and The Model.

Late Breakfasters old cover‘Those, if any, who wish to know more about me’ - Aickman wrote in 1965 – ‘should plunge beneath the frivolous surface of ‘The Late Breakfasters’.’ This claim becomes yet more intriguing when you consider that the novel is a tale of thwarted love: though it opens rather like a country house comedy of manners, its playful seriousness slowly fades into an elegiac variation on the great Greek myth of Hero and Leander – to speak of just one of the allusions that glimmer on its pages.

Its heroine, one Griselda de Reptonville, is invited to a great stately residence called The Beams, where other guests include a bumbling Prime Minister in the process of forming a coalition government. To this end the Beams is to host an All Party Dance, at which Griselda, very much a reluctant dancer, is expected to come out of her shell and take to the floor. (It should be said that throughout the novel dance is a kind of metaphor, as expressed in the popular phrase ‘vertical lovemaking.’) Though she expects little of this weekend, Griselda to her great surprise meets the love of her life. Alas, this is to be just the start of a terrific complication in her life, and a source of more melancholy than joy.

Fans of Aickman’s ‘strange stories’ will be delighted, too, by The Late Breakfasters. It partakes of the humour that is deployed more rarely in the stories, and there are notable flashes of erotic gaiety. (An ageing bookseller tells Griselda, ‘My eros veers almost entirely towards Adonis’; an ageing Duke declares of his lady wife over tea, ‘For some time now it is during the afternoon that I make Odile mine… We both of us find it best at nights to sleep.’) But there are also – wouldn’t you know it? – moments of sepulchral strangeness. The Beams is thought to be haunted, by the ghost of a beautiful Belgian actress named Stephanie des Bourges. The novel’s principal love scene involves a bewitching moonlit walk across a wet lawn to a Temple of Venus on an island amid a lake, with her heroine Griselda clad in black cloak and domino. And the second half of the novel contains a digression of a chapter which I would characterise as a ‘strange story’ in miniature.

Model coverThough Aickman wrote so little in the way of long-form prose he was clearly proud of what he did accomplish in this regard. He told a friend that he considered his novella The Model to be ‘one of the best things I have ever written, if not the very best.’ After his death in 1981 this manuscript, a wintry rococo fable set in Czarist Russia, was located among his papers and duly published for the first time in 1987. It tells of Elena, a grave girl inclined to losing herself in dreams of becoming a student ballerina or coryphée. Her dolour darkens further when she learns she is to be sold into marital slavery by her father so as to settle the family’s debts. Refusing an unendurable future she sets out to the city of Smorevsk to pursue her dream. First, however, she must traverse a landscape crowded by highly curious characters and creatures.

To suggest that The Model is like the marriage of Alice in Wonderland and The Nutcracker would be the sort of publishing vulgarity for which Mr Aickman would have had no time. But you will know what I mean, and I think if you are tempted then you will find The Model to be highly delighting. It is a fable about making the fateful choice to be a creative personage, come what may and whatever the cost. Aickman – who was himself far too much of an artist to ever write the kind of sensational sadistic horror novel that successive agents were sure he had in him – can be glimpsed, I think, in the shade of the purposeful Elena.

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The art of coming to a bad end: Paul Strathern’s fictional imagining of Arthur Rimbaud in Africa

Rimbaud as depicted by Henri Fantin-Latour in his 'The Corner of the Table' (1872)

Rimbaud as depicted by Henri Fantin-Latour in his ‘The Corner of the Table’ (1872)

A Season in Abyssinia: An impersonation of Arthur Rimbaud
By Paul Strathern
Now in Finds paperback and ebook

It’s the only true story I know of in which adolescent bookishness attains the apogee of cool. The date is November 15 1869, and the pupils of the Collège de Charleville are arraigned in sulky lines as they undertake their regional concours académiques. The examination began at six in the morning, now it is nine – and yet one candidate has had his head on his desk, soundly asleep, for all that time. When at last he stirs, it’s to demand some bread and butter. Once that is scoffed, the boy wipes his mouth on his sleeve, takes up his pen, and reels out eighty lines of immaculate Latin verse on the theme of the Numidian king Jugurtha. It’s the prizewinning effort of the day: the school’s honour is saved. But Monsieur Perette, the third-year master, looks sourly upon the boy and his precocity: ‘As intelligent as you like, but he will end badly…’

Does literary history have a finer legend to offer than that of Arthur Rimbaud? I doubt it. When you compound all the elements it really makes for the rarest gold. For a writer to have been a true enfant terrible, hallowed by the surly glamour of rebellion, is a powerful thing in itself – but to have also been a true literary innovator, a founding figure in modern European poetry, is to transcend mere image and attain greatness. But now, think on this: Rimbaud composed all of his major poems between 1870 (when he was 15-16) and 1874 (when he turned 20.) And that’s still not the kicker. Because, remember – having done that work, having earned that place in the pantheon, Rimbaud then turned his face away from it, and never once looked back.

Thus did the editors of his Pléiade edition write of ‘the slim and flashing work which, at the end of the nineteenth century, Arthur Rimbaud left to us with a kind of disdain, and without having taken the trouble to publish almost any of it.’ Enid Starkie, his first biographer in English, wrote that by the time he was 33 – living in Harar, Abyssinia, and scraping a living as a commercial trader – Rimbaud ‘had no curiosity about the fate and the success of his writings, which were appearing in Paris as the work of ‘the late Arthur Rimbaud’…’

Rimbaud had voyaged to Harar as the representative of an Aden-based coffee trader named Alfred Bardey, and was among the very first Europeans to show his face there. He immersed himself in the crude commerce of the town, utterly effacing his creative persona. All the while, back in Paris, his reputation grew, through his appearance in Poètes maudits (1884) and the publication of his Les Illuminations two years later. In Abyssinia, though, Rimbaud recoiled from any identification as a literary man. His employer Bardey was genuinely curious to find out exactly whom he had hired, but Rimbaud just didn’t want to go there. He would admit to Bardey that he had known ‘writers, artists and so on in the Latin Quarter’ but had very quickly come to feel that he had ‘seen enough of those birds.’

This is the Rimbaud we find conjured into life by Paul Strathern’s A Season in Abyssinia: An Impersonation of Arthur Rimbaud. It was Strathern’s second novel, first published in 1972, and it won the Somerset Maugham Award for its year. Faber Finds is very proud to be reissuing it in paperback and ebook: it is a brilliant work, richly evocative of the colour, squalor and hurlyburly of Harar and inspired in its rendering of Rimbaud of a restless, ragged self-overcomer, would-be explorer-imperialist, and genius poet repulsed by his past literary life.

The novel begins in Marseilles in 1891: Rimbaud lies dying in hospital, his mind wandering fitfully – taking him back to Commune-era Paris, to the scandalous life he led with Verlaine, to the difficult relationship he had with his straitlaced mother Vitalie. But, above all, he is transported in his memory to Harar, where he had ventured in 1880 to seek his fortune, having chucking in the disreputable game of writing poetry. Strathern’s Rimbaud, we soon see, is a man desperate to prove his worth in Africa, fearful of failure, driving himself onward against adversity. (He struggles, simultaneously, with desire for native girls and rather guilty feelings about attractions to men.)

Throughout the novel Strathern alternates between the first and third person modes of narration, a gesture to the famous ‘Je est un autre’ (‘I is someone else’) from Rimbaud’s letter to Paul Demeny of May 15 1871. (Rimbaud’s perception of the poetic ‘I’ as a fictional construct, his sense of detachment from his own consciousness (‘I am present at the hatching of my thought’/’J’assiste à l’éclosion de ma pensée’) is perhaps above all else what makes him eternally modern.) I’m pleased to say that Paul Strathern discussed this creative choice and others with me for a new Q&A preface to our Finds edition.

Paul is now best known for such major non-fiction works as The Medici: Godfathers of the Renaissance (2003), Napoleon in Egypt (2007), Death in Florence: The Medici, Savonarola and the Battle for the Soul of the Renaissance City (2011), and The Spirit of Venice: From Marco Polo to Casanova (2012). But back in the 1960s, as a recent graduate in philosophy from Trinity College, Dublin, he joined the Merchant Navy and travelled widely, and it was this experience that gave him the seed of the idea to imagine Rimbaud’s life as fiction. As he told me:

Rimbaud's house in Harar from 1888, photo by Ottorino Rosa

Rimbaud’s house in Harar from 1888, photo by Ottorino Rosa


During the time I spent in the Merchant Navy, the old tramp steamer I was on sailed the Red Sea, called in at Aden and travelled along the Ethiopian coast – all very much the ground Rimbaud covered when he gave up poetry and left France to become a trader. I was there in the early 1960s when Aden was a tacky duty-free port, a flea-bitten outpost of the Empire. But then just over half a century earlier Rimbaud had considered it much the same. Later, I travelled to Ethiopia with my daughter, and we visited Harar… The old city remained virtually unchanged from how it had been in Rimbaud’s time, and even from the time of Sir Richard Burton, who was the first European non-Muslim to stay there in the 1850s… we were shown where Rimbaud had actually lived – a nondescript place with a large dusty courtyard in front of it. A photo of this house, dating from 1888 and featuring a large ostrich, has since been discovered. Peter Porter wrote a poem about the photo, ‘Rimbaud’s Ostrich’, which can be found on the internet.

Paul also travelled down to Djibouti, where there was a Rimbaud Museum of sorts, ‘albeit permanently closed and empty.’ He and his daughter shared a small plane with a dozen or so sacks of qat, the local drug of choice, and on their arrival in Djibouti he got to observe the ritual dissemination of the plane’s bounty around the entire town:

By the time the qat was fully distributed, around noon, everyone was chewing away at their sprig of leaves, and within the hour the entire male population – and some females, so we were told disapprovingly – lay stretched out on beds, or on steps or in doorways, in a pleasant daze. All trade, all activity of any sort, ground to a halt. Rimbaud himself almost certainly partook of this ritual when he was on the coast, and probably when he was in the interior too. He may have given up poetry, but he never gave up drugs.

It’s consoling, perhaps, to think of some part of Rimbaud that remained forever young, though his disapproving schoolmasters may have felt his demise was all of a piece with that adolescent surliness. But by the time of his season in Abyssinia Rimbaud was assuredly all grown up; it might just be that in that arid and hostile bolthole, having evaded a literary world he thought moribund, he nonetheless had nowhere else to go.

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Sir Wilson Harris: a lifetime’s achievement honoured by the Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards

A portrait of Sir Wilson Harris by Guido Villa

A portrait of Sir Wilson Harris by Guido Villa

Sir Wilson Harris, whose oeuvre we now offer entirely within Faber Finds, has been awarded a new distinction: the lifetime achievement prize of the Cleveland Foundation’s Anisfield-Wolf Book Awards in the US, which recognises literature that confronts racism and examines diversity. This year’s jury was headed by Henry Louis Gates, and the Foundation’s press release is here. Wilson gave an interview online about the award here.

Unable to travel to the States for the gala ceremony in September, Wilson taped an acceptance speech to camera at his home in Chelmsford on Monday. He read from The Angel at the Gate, then spoke about some of the highlights of his career, remembering the special excitement he felt in 1960 when Charles Monteith accepted his first novel Palace of the Peacock for publication on the recommendation of T.S. Eliot. Wilson also wore the medal of his knighthood throughout the taping and said he’d enjoyed meeting the Queen that day, being especially glad that they hadn’t offered him the standard OBE or MBE but had ‘gone straight to the top’ with the K…

In terms of a recent appreciation of Harris’s work and its significance and his place in twentieth century literature, one couldn’t wish for more than this from the Independent‘s Boyd Tonkin in 2010: ‘In Harris’s work, Amerindian mythology joins existentialism, ecology, epic narration that draws on Homer and Dante, and a visionary understanding of landscape and history. He takes fiction down hidden tributaries quite as lush and remote as any of the jungle backwaters that he evokes…’

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‘With a voluptuous fluttering’: Mozart and Freud meet again, in Brigid Brophy’s ‘Snow Ball’

BrigidBrophy-1We have just proudly completed our reissuing of a select set of works by Brigid Brophy, with her exquisite 1968 monograph on Aubrey Beardsley, Black and White. Beardsley was one of Brophy’s heroes/touchstones – and belonged, as such, in a super-elite group.

No appreciation of Brophy’s fiction could be complete without reference to her passionate regard for Mozart and how she placed him in the all-time pantheon of creative artists. (This was right at the top, ‘on the very pinnacle of Parnassus’ alongside Shakespeare, as she made clear in her 1964 study Mozart the Dramatist – also available in Finds.) Mozart is a presiding spirit through all of Brophy’s novels, but arguably the one that is most thoroughly infused is The Snow Ball (1964), a work that consummately melds Brophy’s deep interests in myth, opera, sexuality and psychoanalysis. Its heroine Anna admits freely to a troika of obsessions: ‘Mozart, sex, and death.’ The Freudian opposites of eros and thanatos, which Brophy considered in her non-fictional Black Ship to Hell (1962), are also shadowy guests in the wings of The Snow Ball.

The novel takes for an epigraph Brophy’s own note from Mozart the Dramatist concerning the age-old critical interest in the question of ‘whether, when the opera opens, Don Giovanni has just seduced or has just failed to seduce Donna Anna.’ In The Snow Ball ‘Did she or didn’t she?’ is turned around to ‘Will she or won’t she?’ as Brophy, with a dextrous touch and allusive skill, brings Mozart’s age into our own.

snowball2The setting is ideal for the purpose: an eighteenth-century-themed costume ball on New Year’s Eve, in a London residence so grand as to house a ballroom, home to wealthy Tom and his wife, four-times-married Anne. Anna attends alone, dressed as Donna Anna, unhappily preoccupied by her middle years and what they mean for her good looks, as well as by a general distaste for the occasion. (‘If one wants to forget one’s age’, she will lament, ‘new year’s eve is the wrong eve to start.’) Like Brigid Brophy, Anna has a highly developed aesthetic sense, and to her keen eye no-one at this ball looks quite right: too many cut-price Casanovas and third-rate Marie Antoinettes. Anna is of the view that people come to fancy-dress balls as their daydreams, and she is pained by the paucity of imagination on display. Yet the judgement she passes on others could be one from which she is willing to exempt herself.

At least one guest at the ball is wearing a mask; and this element of the bal masque makes the vital bridge for the novel into a Mozartian world – the masquerade being, as critic Terry Castle has put it, ‘part of the eighteenth century of the imagination, which in the end is the only one we have.’ A masked ball is usually a subversive occasion, one where feckless acts may suddenly be permitted, and the world turned upside down if only for a night – including the balance of power between men and women, as it is affected by sexual attraction and consenting sexual intercourse.

So, when at midnight Anna meets a masked Don who kisses her on the mouth – ‘not socially, but on the lips, gently and erotically, then with a voluptuous fluttering, and at last with a violent and passionate exploration’ – she is moved to wonder if this mystery man might share her personal obsessions, and whether a closer union is meant to be.

Patrick Allen & Katharine Blake in a BBC Wednesday Play of 'The Snow Ball' (1966)

Patrick Allen & Katharine Blake in a BBC Wednesday Play of ‘The Snow Ball’ (1966)

First, though, as if feeling eighteenth century mores pressing upon her, Anna flees from her suitor, seeking refuge in the sumptuous boudoir of her friend and hostess Anne. It is white ‘like peppermint creams’, done in a style Anna thinks of as ‘tart’s rococo’. There she and Anne share affectionate, barbed gossip and confidences – the reader conscious all the while of a current of erotic tension that will drive the novel to its very last page. Anna’s dilemma, though the core of The Snow Ball, is complemented by side-plots. Her kiss with the Don has been observed by Ruth Blumenbaum, teenage daughter of another old friend: Ruth is a precocious diarist who has come to the ball dressed as Cherubino, squired by her disagreeable beau Edward (Casanova). The fitful struggle toward intimacy of these two youths makes for a counter-theme in the novel, as does the slightly unsightly but undeniably contented marriage of Anne and Tom (or ‘Tom-Tom’ and ‘Tum-Tum’, as they call one another in confidence.)

In these parallel amours Brophy makes fine use of her gift for describing human carnality. One evocation, from the female perspective, of what the French call la petite mort was thought rather scandalous by readers in 1964, perhaps chiefly because Brophy was a woman and wrote so superbly. And yet Brophy never lets us forget that, however well fitted the partners in this dance, its aftermath can lead nonetheless to thoughts of an entirely different nature. Or to paraphrase Plautus – whom Brophy takes as her other epigraph – even in the midst of the most diverting activities Death may creep up upon us.

This is another tension that persists to the last page of The Snow Ball, where the curtain drops on what is arguably Brigid Brophy’s most seductive fictional performance. Try it for yourself. I swear you will be suitably ravished.

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Of how ‘bloodthirsty Saul’ came to see the light: ‘The Implacable Hunter’ by Gerald Kersh

kershSomewhat in the manner of P.G. Wodehouse’s male codfish ‘which, suddenly finding itself the parent of three million five hundred thousand little codfish, cheerfully resolves to love them all’ , we have no favouritism when it comes to the great array of works of high distinction on the Finds list. That said, there are, inevitably, some works which have a special resonance in light of one’s longstanding literary/research interests. One such title for your correspondent happens to be The Implacable Hunter by Gerald Kersh (1960), which we have offered since last November. It’s a joy to have a range of Kersh titles in Finds; but this one is distinctive even within the Kersh oeuvre for taking as its subject the story of Saint Paul prior to his sainthood. And I would urge you with all my heart to read it for yourself.

As the second most formidable figure in the New Testament Paul is of obvious interest to writers of all stripes, despite (or because of?) the fact that scriptural accounts are the only sources we have by which to know him. Yet the literary worth of his Epistles, above all in their King James rendering, is so great that attempts to attain a psychological insight into his character are only natural. For a novelist the challenge has an obvious savour to it, and yet it’s one that has been rarely taken up.

Paul does make a memorable fantasy cameo in the celebrated final act of Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation (1954), as the former ‘bloodthirsty Saul’, ‘a squat, fat hunchback, still young, but bald’, whose zeal to preach of his conversion to Christianity is briefly derailed when he runs into an ageing Jesus of Nazareth who insists that he never died on the cross. Still, after a brow-furrowed pause Paul presses on regardless, more or less threatening the Messiah that he will finish the job himself if needs be. Kazantzakis’s Paul is ‘like a famished wolf, running to eat up the world’: he goes forth in his evangelising mission already anticipating the ‘joy’ of being ‘shunned, beaten, thrown in deep pits and killed.’

In The Implacable Hunter Gerald Kersh follows a more rugged, thorny path towards an understanding of Paul. Not for him the Biblical years in which the narrative line is tolerably clear: Kersh concerns himself with that bloodthirsty period in which Saul of Tarsus was the vigilant and diligent scourge of Nazarene Christians. (And Kersh’s Saul bears two names within these pages, just as a Jewish native of Tarsus who was also a Roman citizen would have done: Saul a natural choice in memory of Israel’s first king, Paulus equally obvious for a Roman.)

Gerald Kersh

Gerald Kersh

Kersh tells the tale from the vantage of Diomed, Roman prefect in Tarsus, who makes himself a mentor to young Saul, only to be much amazed by what follows. The path takes Kersh and his readers all the way to the famous Damascene conversion where a peculiar vision (or ‘episode’) causes scales to fall from Saul’s eyes. But the purpose of the journey is really to examine how this Pharisee, who took the Torah as divine law and policed the hard barriers between Jew and Gentile, turned into the man who could write ‘For I through the law am dead to the law, that I might live unto God.’ (Galatians 2:19) To this end Kersh occupies Paul’s mind on the page in ways that stimulate and fascinate. We are quickly made aware of his obvious abhorrence of the notion that a crucified criminal could possibly be ‘the light of the world’; and yet in his mission to purge the Roman-occupied lands of the Christ cult Saul/Paulus confronts sights that unnerve his conviction – none more forcefully than the stoning of Stephen, which Kersh re-imagines from the Book of Acts with great skill.

Along the route there are other insights into a mind ill at ease: Biblical scholars have assumed Paul never married, but Kersh endows him with a beautiful wife. This good fortune, however, doesn’t prevent Kersh’s Paul from expounding anti-female opinions of a disturbing virulence to his friend Diomed – views a good deal stronger, even, than those expressed in the Epistles which have given Paul such a bad reputation for misogyny, and accordingly received close attention from revisionist scholars. Elsewhere, though we know little of Paul’s parentage, his father is accorded a significant place in Kersh’s narrative – in such a way as to make us ponder the possible reasons why a Jew who was the son of a Roman citizen might first have done murderous service to Rome, only to remake himself as a subversive antagonist of both the Pharisees and the Emperor. By the time Kersh’s magisterial novel closes – returning to the Neronian court where it begins – these great mysteries have been both deepened and elucidated.

A note with which to finish concerning Paul in Kazantzaki’s The Last Temptation, and Martin Scorsese’s once-notorious and quite brilliant 1988 film version. The notoriety arose chiefly from the novel’s imagining of Christ on the cross being visited by Satan and shown a life of domesticity – marriage, children – which he could embrace and savour in return for renouncing this whole crazy plan of blood sacrifice for the redemption of mankind… As Scorsese’s screenwriter Paul Schrader put it, ‘The greatness of the book is its metaphorical leap into this imagined temptation; that’s what separates it from the Bible and makes it a commentary upon it.’ The film does Kazantzakis proud, in my view, not least through its powerful acting performances – none better than Harry Dean Stanton, who is quite, quite phenomenal as Saul of Tarsus, he who became Paul. In the clip below Harry Dean is so good I almost want to pick up my mat and follow him.

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‘Good Evening…’: The suspense of what happened when Alfred Hitchcock met Celia Fremlin

Alfred Hitchcock AimsceliaWe were just talking – weren’t we (see passim)? – about the tremendous riches offered by crime fiction as source material for the suspense/thriller/chiller series that abounded on television from the 1950s through to the 1980s. (The tradition has limped on, sure, but to nowhere near the same extent.) Where these series enjoyed a celebrity host presenting the evening’s entertainment at the top of the show then the marquee value was increased immeasurably: thus Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected, with its fire-lit intros, shadows etched into Dahl’s seasoned face as he intoned, quietly and ominously. Has there ever been, though, a more distinctive and celebrated and pre-approved master of ceremonies for this kind of thing than Hitchcock? Alfred Hitchcock Presents/The Alfred Hitchcock Hour ran on CBS and NBC in the US from 1955 to 1965 – or roughly from just after Rear Window to just after Marnie – and is remembered to this day as a classic anthology show.

I bring it up in relation to our reissue of the complete works of Celia Fremlin, beginning with The Hours Before Dawn (1958), which won her the Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. In 1963 Fremlin’s novel was adapted for the Hitchcock series, with a cast headed by Gena Rowlands (who was just about to embark with John Cassavetes on the long central collaboration of her life and work.) It’s a well-done affair (see below) and makes you wish that more of Fremlin’s work had found what would have been a natural home on screen, big or small. But of course there’s no time like the present…

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