With Alan Hackney’s I’m All Right Jack newly reissued in Finds it’s obviously much, much too good a chance to miss that we sneak in a couple of choice moments from the Boulting brothers’ classic 1959 Ealing screen adaptation of the novel, starring Peter Sellers and Terry-Thomas. Sellers’ performance as Fred Kite is probably still rated as one of his finest, and thought to be a reasonably faithful portrait (however comic/sardonic) of an enduringly recognisible British workplace ‘type’. I don’t know, though – after all it’s 50 years since this film was in cinemas – does Fred Kite really remind you of anyone these days…?
Your correspondent, being also a novelist, tends to fight shy of statements about what The Novel ought to be and what novelists ought properly to concern themselves with. My general hope (without meaning to imply a Maoist line on the matter) is that a hundred different flowers blossom in the field. But in that spirit I’m happy to own up to a particular admiration (among many) for a certain sort of novelist whose historical-cultural range and taste in subject matter is notably restless, ambitious and diverse. William Palmer is certainly one such novelist.
As David Lodge has put it, ‘Palmer’s fictions are notable for the variety of their subjects and settings, and for the consistency of their craftsmanship.’ You will find no obvious internal linkage between Palmer’s The Good Republic, Leporello, The Contract, The Pardon of Saint Anne, The India House or the story collection Four Last Things except for that craftsmanship and ‘precision’ to which Lodge pays tribute. I am pleased to say that The Good Republic, The Pardon of Saint Anne and Four Last Things are all available in Finds. And The Good Republic has a special pertinence for readers in this year that sees the twentieth anniversary of the independence of the Baltic republics Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania. A review of our Finds edition published in the Economist, which hails the novel unreservedly as a ‘classic’, is worth quoting at length:
Mr Palmer’s book set a standard for an east European historical novel that has yet to be matched—an especially impressive feat for an outsider. It is mainly set during the Soviet takeover of the Baltics in 1939-40… Even more vivid than the deportations and executions are the descriptions of the swift decay of statehood and legality: the policeman trampled by pro-Soviet demonstrators, civil servants struggling to uphold the constitution, the sinister placemen issuing instructions, the president a prisoner in his palace. Then comes the Soviet retreat and the Nazi occupation—a sinister non-liberation, bringing a terrible fate to the Jewish population, and a moral abyss for those who directly or indirectly abet it.
All this comes as flashbacks, seen through the eyes of the young Jacob Balthus. At the start of the book he is a Baltic émigré in London, who has spent decades running the pointless and, by the 1980s, almost defunct “Congress of Exiles”. He returns at the invitation of the nascent pro-democracy movement in his homeland, where his father was a senior civil servant in the days of interwar independence.
The fractious and futile-seeming life of east European émigré organisations is well drawn, as is the trembling excitement of the late 1980s when once-forbidden contacts were first permitted and then flourished. But even better is the description of the (composite) pre-war Baltic country in which the young Balthus grows up, so solid from his point of view, so terrifyingly fragile for his wise, well-informed father.
Remarkably, Mr Palmer did not visit the Baltic states before writing the book; his research mainly consisted of reading transcripts of evidence given to congressional hearings by senior Baltic figures who had escaped to the West. It is a tribute to his novelist’s skills that anyone reading the book has the feeling of complete authenticity in both history and geography. Readers are left longing for a sequel.
Posted in Monthly Round-Ups, Reissues
Tagged alan hackney, christopher lee, faber finds, gerald abraham, h.f. ellis, henry williamson, jim ring, john grigg, norman gash, pat barr, raleigh trevelyan, t.f. powys
The excellent book-blogger A Work in Progress has been kind enough to devote an entry to our work in this parish, specifically to the happy discovery that P.H. Newby’s Booker-winning Something to Answer For is one of our Finds re-discoveries.
We’re glad of the mention – and per the additional thoughts on Finds’ pricing, I do accept that our Finds titles are not cheap for paperbacks, especially when one has a new furnace to pay for (as is Work In Progress’s predicament, clearly appreciated by the many loyal and kind commentators to the post.) The price-points reflect the overheads of keeping a library of 1000 titles (and growing) each available to a new reader at the push of a button. And the quality-control issues raised further down the Comments by another first-rate book-blogger, Desperate Reader, are fully accepted and apologised for, as I tried to in a previous post here on Robert Aickman. I believe I can now say with confidence that – precisely in response to some regrettable early glitches and some understandable unhappiness among book-lovers – no such errors have been occurring in our Finds titles for some time; and then, where readers have spotted egregious typographic flaws in earlier titles, we have been endeavouring to prepare new corrected editions of same. We should re-state, again and again, that we value the feedback, views and comments of bibliophiles everywhere, whether expressing pleasure or displeasure, for – if you’ll forgive me extending that ‘parish’ metaphor as above – this is our living and indeed our calling, and these are our pastoral responsibilities…
The currency of the issue of female journalists working in danger-zones remains high at the moment, and so it’s great to see Anne Sebba of Battling for News fame et al writing for the Independent on an intriguing new fiction by Annalena McAfee. Read the whole for yourself here, the opening paragraphs will grab anyone with an interest in this field:
In 1991, researching a history of women reporters, I wrote to veteran war correspondent Martha Gellhorn requesting an interview. She declined to co-operate with a book which had women in the title, insisting that she was a reporter, not a woman reporter.
The Spoiler, Annalena McAfee’s first novel for adults, is, the author insists, not based on Martha, nor any of the other distinguished women journalists of her era. Yet her heroine, Honor Tait, (born 1917) bears an uncanny resemblance to the woman whose fearless reporting from the Spanish Civil War and the front line during the Second World War made her a legend as much as her messy private life, which included a stormy marriage to Ernest Hemingway…
Bel Mooney: a confirmed Tessimond Fan
The novelist, children’s author and journalist Bel Mooney
is also the Daily Mail
‘s correspondent with the special task of handling a postbag full of readers’ personal problems. (The term ‘agony aunt’ has always struck me as a little too hard-bitten Old Fleet Street…) Last Saturday Mooney addressed herself to a missive from a 55-year-old divorced father of two who is worried that he has found contentment but not quite love with “a divorced lady (aged 47)… also with two children of similar ages.”
And the advice Mooney found for this gentleman issued from a source very dear to us at Faber Finds… But I’ll let BM tell you the rest:
I studied your letter, which put me in mind of a favourite poem of mine called ‘Not Love, Perhaps’ by a long-neglected poet called A.S.J. Tessimond. Then — believe it or not — in the same postbag I found that a lady called Sylvia, writing with her own problem, had copied out for me that very poem!
Amazed, I decided that it must have a message for you — so please Google it now. (Though out of print for years, this wonderful poet is reprinted now by Faber Finds).
The poem compares the romantic idea of love ‘that many waters cannot quench’ with the mutual companionship and support, which helps a couple ‘walk more firmly through dark narrow places’.
Tessimond celebrates the idea of love as an ‘alliance’ — though, of course, his title ironically questions the very word ‘love’. Oh, let’s join in the chorus of ‘You got a friend’ with Carole King! Let us be grateful to have found an inn to give us shelter, when the road is dark and empty and the wind blows cold. Let’s cherish companionship and learn not to listen to the siren call of this thing called ‘true love’, which can wreak such destruction.
Evidently the manner in which disparate readers feel themselves moved and consoled by this piece of Tessimond’s is a proof of the enduring merit of his work; and one more reason for Faber Finds to be proud of having restored his great posthumous selection Not Love, Perhaps to print, available to order here. Thanks go to Bel Mooney for bringing Tessimond to this broader attention, and also for the generous mention of Finds.