Patricia Hollis’s ‘Jennie Lee’, the mantle of Nye, and how (or how not) to be a Junior Minister

Jennie Lee addressing busmen in Trafalgar Square, 1937

Jennie Lee addressing busmen in Trafalgar Square, 1937

JENNIE LEE: A Life
by Patricia Hollis
Faber Finds paperback & ebook

Enoch Powell took the view that all political careers end in failure (‘because that is the nature of politics and of human affairs.’) One could argue, and on the same grounds, that most political careers never get very far past failure in their beginnings or middles either. Certainly, few politicians who rose no higher in front-line politics than the rank of junior minister are much remembered for the marks they left behind.

Surely the grand dame exception here, though, is Jennie Lee (1904-1988), rightly hailed by her biographer Patricia Hollis as ‘the first and defining Minister for the Arts and founder of the Open University.’ (Let’s remember, too, that Harold Wilson considered the accessibility and quality of the Open University to be the greatest achievement of his government.)

Hollis’s book Jennie Lee – A Life (1997) won both the Orwell Prize for best political biography and the Wolfson History Prize for best book of its year. Gerald Kaufman, MP and author of the durable How to be a Minister, hailed it in the Telegraph as ‘superbly researched, engrossingly written, scrupulously honest.’ We are proud to reissue it now in a Finds edition newly updated by Baroness Hollis, in paperback and ebook formats.

On point of legacy one might wish to remember Jennie Lee above all for the crowning political success into which her distinctive talents were deeply invested. But, as history would have it, it simply cannot be overlooked that she was, from 1934 to 1960, married to Aneurin Bevan, whose post-1945 presiding over the birth of a comprehensive universal national health service is felt by a fair few people to be the greatest thing Labour has ever done or will ever do. Though she was surely no shrinking violet, Lee certainly did decide to subsume her own ambitions into what she saw as the higher calling of supporting Bevan. ‘He was doing what I wanted done,’ she once said, ‘infinitely better than I could have done it.’

Though it may be a bit of a crude prolepsis to speak of Bevan and Lee as a Labour ‘power couple’, still, insofar as the term has been applied more recently to Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper (even to Jack Dromey and Harriet Harman), it could be argued that the man from Trenegar and the woman from Fife wore it with rather more of a flourish. And after Bevan’s death Jennie became the first Bevanite, overseeing the bearing of the flame by helping Michael Foot with his two-volume biography of her late husband (both volumes are, of course, Finds) and so helping to ensure that the challenge, opportunity and burden of leading Labour’s left wing would always be seen among cognoscenti as ‘the mantle of Nye.’

Patricia Hollis maps Lee’s life broadly into three stages: the first fiery phase in which her unyielding principles, exercised via the puritan Independent Labour Party (ILP), duly led her into self-imposed political exile; the second passage in which she and Nye made their formidable union (she routinely perceived, especially in struggles with Atlee and Gaitskell, as Nye’s ‘dark angel’, forever dragging him away from the rocks of political compromise toward pure shores); and then the third act of Jennie’s late-flowering ministerial career.

She was 60 – Nye had been gone four years – when Wilson brought her into the fold as Arts Minister, an appointment commentators inevitably characterised as ‘a wreath for Nye.’ (She had earlier, wisely, refused a post at Health, sniffing a Wilsonian ruse to buy a piece of Nye’s reputation at a discount.) Her six years in the post saw government funding for the arts nearly trebled. We got, at last, the National Theatre, and then the English National Opera. The film industry was strengthened, the National Film School opened, arts in education flourished more generally, and then of course came the University of the Air.

As I say, Patricia Hollis has now revisited her work from 1997, in a new preface for the Finds edition wherein she addresses, inter alia, elements of Lee’s private life – ‘personal material, that I chose not to use believing it would be hurtful’ – which can now be discussed more openly thanks to the passage of time.

Another significant turn of events in the interim since first publication is that after New Labour’s landslide election victory in May 1997 Tony Blair made Hollis Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Work and Pensions, a post she held until the reshuffle of 2005. And so experience of government and how the machine works has also given Hollis a fresh vantage on her original material, such that in the new preface she takes the opportunity ‘to reflect further on some of the conclusions offered back in 1997, not so much on Jennie’s achievements in the Arts and with the Open University, of which I am an unstinting admirer, but of her Ministerial style, where I am not.’ Hollis’s itemisation of the personality traits freely exuded by Lee in the exercise of her portfolio makes for rather flabbergasting reading today, and yet, as the author equally freely admits, it was the only way Jennie Lee knew to get things done. And done they certainly were:

‘(W)hat today would derail a Minister – bloody-mindedness to colleagues, indifference to her Secretary of State, visible contempt for the department in which she was located – was instead Jennie’s strength… She simply did not care whether she offended proprieties or bypassed hierarchies. She wasn’t interested in working with colleagues to develop shared policy. She wasn’t willing to negotiate. She wasn’t building a career. She didn’t need the approbation of her Secretary of State. She wasn’t interested in working the civil service machine. She didn’t want to know how it ran. She didn’t want their advice. She didn’t trust them at all…’

You won’t find any of that in Kaufman’s How to Be a Minister or in any work before or since that presumes to advise on how the levers of government ought to be pulled. All the more reason, then, to look anew at the story of Jennie Lee, told so superbly by a woman who followed in Lee’s footsteps and into another Labour government thirty years on.

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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 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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‘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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A seat-of-the-Armchair-Thriller: Lionel Davidson’s ‘The Chelsea Murders’

chelsea_murdersAll those whose childhoods were spent in the era when television was a diversion one watched across only three channels do tend to have unusually vivid memories of particularly exciting TV programmes – made stronger, perhaps, by the fact that there was generally so little on, such that the chances were your curious peer group had been watching the very same thing as you at the very same time, so making for especially excited chatter the following morning. (It still happens today with some shows, of course, except that Twitter can suck the life out of such chatter before anyone even gets to the water cooler at work, or the school playground or wherever…)

Lionel Davidson

Lionel Davidson

For obvious reasons there was always a special place in the ‘Did you see…?’ pantheon for spooky TV dramas that succeeded in scaring the bejesus out of impressionable viewers: from Tales of the Unexpected to the Hammer House of Horror to Armchair Thriller. Re. the latter, just mention ‘Quiet as a Nun’ to those of a certain age; and another entry in that category for this viewer would be the six-part adaptation of Lionel Davidson’s The Chelsea Murders, with its mute theatrically masked killer cutting a grisly swathe down the Kings Road of the 1970s. For further information let me recommend this excellent essay on Davidson’s novel, the ITV adaptation, the Chelsea milieu and the broader mores of the 1970s – including a refined appreciation of Scary Seventies Telly – by Dermot Kavanagh over at London Fictions.

ChelseaKavanagh therein describes his pleasing discovery of a ‘TV tie-in’ paperback of the novel that featured a shot of the killer’s awful mask on the cover – as above. Naturally, our Faber Finds edition of The Chelsea Murders is adorned by a rather more spartan cover. But it’s the same book, guv’nor, honest it is – and also an ebook. And it is to be cherished, as all of the entries in Lionel Davidson’s brief but brilliant bibliography, works that led the Sunday Telegraph to hail him to be ‘as significant as Len Deighton or le Carré in bringing a gritty new realism to the thriller’, and which earned him no fewer than three Gold Daggers from the Crime Writers’ Association, as well as the CWA’s Cartier Diamond Dagger for lifetime achievement. Finds is truly proud and privileged to offer all eight of Lionel Davidson’s novels for adults to contemporary readers.

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Hugh Fleetwood: a Faber Finds retrospective, courtesy of the Calvert 22 Gallery

Hugh Fleetwood, and his work, 16/12/2013

Hugh Fleetwood, and his work: ‘Butterflies’ 16/12/2013

The business of Finds is nothing if not a labour of love; and so we’re not routinely in a position to push out the boat on the re-launching of the esteemed titles that we return to print. However, with a little help, a lot of comradely good will and the generous donation of a little time and resource, we can still make a proper literary soiree happen. Such an evening we had, and in some style, last month in the marking of our reissue of six titles by Hugh Fleetwood: the novels The Girl Who Passed for Normal, The Order of Death, and An Artist and a Magician, and the story collections The Beast, Fictional Lives and The Man Who Went Down with his Ship.

Our host for the night was the splendid Calvert 22 Gallery in Shoreditch: the UK’s only not-for-profit institution dedicated to the presentation of contemporary art from Russia and Eastern Europe. The Gallery’s founder and Director Nonna Materkova most kindly made the space available to us in honour of Hugh, and we were ably assisted in getting things together by Polina Abery.

Art galleries do make a nice aesthetic match for the selling of Faber Finds...

Art galleries do make a nice aesthetic match for the selling of Faber Finds…

What made the Calvert 22 Gallery such a splendid site for the evening derives from the fact that Hugh is as accomplished a painter as he is a writer of prose fiction. (As he told me in the Q&A that forms a preface to each of our Finds reissues, back in 1970 in Spoleto he even had the privilege of sharing an exhibition with Picasso.) And so across the elegant white walls of the Calvert 22 Hugh was able to arrange a hanging of 40+ of his canvases, which made a marvellous backdrop to the evening, and offered a rare and cherishable browsing opportunity for the guests.

n475One spare white wall of the space was even given over to the projection of the 1983 movie Order of Death/Corrupt/Cop Killer adapted from Hugh’s novel and starring John Lydon and Harvey Keitel as two sides of the same bad coin. The spread as a whole, offering strangeness, beauty and menace in roughly equal proportions, must have worked its dark charm, as we sold out of our special printing of Hugh’s books for the evening – the first to go, fittingly, his Llewellyn Rhys prize-winning The Girl Who Passed for Normal. But any of the six titles could be recommended to a reader starting afresh on Hugh’s oeuvre. If you want another objective opinion, see this excellent review of The Order of Death from the Raven Crime Reads site – highly extractable as below if you’ve not time for the whole:

“This little rediscovered classic from Faber’s imprint Faber Finds proved a real hit with me. Originally published in the 1970′s, Fleetwood produces an intense, violent yet ultimately satisfying criminal morality tale, that had this reader questioning the motivations of not only the central ‘criminal’ protagonist but also the loose relationship with morality displayed by the main police character… This is an intelligent and clever read that completely immerses the reader into the tale with its spare and beautifully dispassionate prose, playing with our own perception of morality and causing the shifting of allegiances throughout. It has an innate sadness when viewed as a whole, with more than a nod to the traditional tragedy style which could easily translate to the stage, although ostensibly will just labelled as a crime book. A powerful and emotive read.”

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Competition time! A dozen great literary biographies to be won, from Mary Ann Evans and Edith Sitwell to Alfred and Emily Tennyson…

A mini-biography of Milton in Edward Phillips’ Theatrum poetarum, or A compleat collection of the poets, especially the most eminent, of all ages'  (1675)

A mini-biography of Milton in Edward Phillips’ Theatrum poetarum, or A compleat collection of the poets, especially the most eminent, of all ages’ (1675)

Literary biography is a queen among the non-fiction genres: few dedicated readers can resist the natural urge to know more of the lives of the writers they most admire, and of the times that shaped, and were informed by, said writers. That said, for a variety of reasons literary biography may be something of a vanishing art in contemporary trade publishing. Be assured, however, that at Finds Towers literary lives remain endlessly current and vital.

From our bounteous list of major literary biographies we have plucked out a dozen and are pleased to offer a copy of each to be won:

Mrs Browning: A Poet’s Work and its Setting by Alethea Hayter

George Eliot by Rosemary Ashton

E.M. Forster by P.N. Furbank

William Gerhardie by Dido Davies

A.E. Housman: The Scholar Poet by Richard Perceval Graves

Pursued by Furies: A Life of Malcolm Lowry by Gordon Bowker

Dennis Potter by Humphrey Carpenter

In Search of J.D. Salinger by Ian Hamilton

Edith Sitwell: A Unicorn Among Lions by Victoria Glendinning

Emily Tennyson: The Poet’s Wife by Anne Thwaite

Tennyson: The Unquiet Heart by Robert Bernard Martin

Rebecca West by Victoria Glendinning

For a chance to win the title of your choice, you have to do two things.

1. Answer these two questions correctly:

(i) In which famous cemetery was Mary Ann Evans (‘George Eliot’) buried?

(ii) ‘Blue Remembered Hills’, one of the best-regarded TV plays of the 1970s by Dennis Potter, takes its title from a line in a poem by A.E. Housman. Name the celebrated collection of poems by Housman in which that poem appears.

Update: This competition is now closed.

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Ilsa Barea’s ‘Vienna: Legend & Reality’ in the light of the National Gallery’s ‘Facing the Modern: The Portrait in Vienna – 1900′

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1917-18 by Gustav Klimt.

Portrait of Amalie Zuckerkandl, 1917-18 by Gustav Klimt.

Possibly a fair few of us think of fin de siècle Vienna as, in George Steiner’s phrase, ‘a crucible’ – both of creation and of hope, but of darker incendiary forces too. Vienna circa 1900 gave the world Freud and Mahler, Wittgenstein and Popper, Schoenberg and Adolf Loos – not to mention Gustav Klimt, Egon Schiele and Oskar Kokoschka. But with good cause would the satirist Karl Kraus label Vienna as ‘the research laboratory for world destruction.’

The National Gallery’s new exhibition of Viennese portraiture from this period (1867 to 1918 is the actual span under review) prompts us to think anew about the city’s pivotal role in our perception of modernity and what befell the civilized world in the twentieth century. Of course, portraiture was by this time well established as an artistic form through which a settled, prosperous bourgeoisie liked to see itself reflected; and the late nineteenth century Vienna of Emperor Franz Joseph, centre of the Hapsburg Empire, saw a brisk trade in this sort of work. But portraiture could not help but be inflected by the times and the make-up of Vienna, energized above all after Franz Joseph’s 1867 Constitution which gave full citizenship and educational access to Vienna’s notably thriving Jewish population. The Expressionism of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka was coming round the corner, poised to change our ways of seeing; but the boldness of this work was by no means to all tastes. Meanwhile Adolf Hitler arrived in Vienna in 1906, sought and failed to win admission to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, and began to turn his stunted, peremptory ambitions elsewhere.

The story of Vienna lends itself easily to legend, and readers looking for a substantive history of the great city could be easily conned. Thus the value of a work described by Arthur Koestler as ‘neither the treacly legend, nor the acid anti-legend, but a delicate and scholarly panorama.’ This is Ilsa Barea’s Vienna, first published in 1966 by Secker and Warburg and now returned to print (and unveiled in ebook) as a Find. Those attending the National Gallery’s exhibition could not want for a finer guide to the true history behind the canvases than this rich mosaic of a book: a masterly and highly personal blend of lightly-worn learning, wit and imagination.

Ilsa Barea

Ilsa Barea

Ilsa Barea was born in Vienna in 1902 and studied political sciences at the university. Come the 1930s political reasons compelled her to emigrate to Czechoslovakia, from whence she went to Spain on the Republican side early in the Civil War. There she met Ernest Hemingway and Martha Gellhorn, Frank Capa and others. She married the Spanish writer Arturo Barea and together they settled in England. During World War II Ilsa worked in the BBC Monitoring Service. She translated over twenty books into English (including Arturo Barea’s great Spanish Civil war trilogy The Forging of a Rebel), edited a paperback series of international classics, and wrote, lectured and broadcast in several languages. In the 1960s she returned to Vienna, where she died in 1972. But it was here that her Vienna: Legend and Reality came to life – a work deemed by the Kirkus Review to be ‘informed by the highly sensible intellect of a true daughter of Wien, history in the European tradition.’

Vienna’s long first chapter describes the landscape of the city, stresses its role as frontier fortress and a melting pot, and shows how historic events – such as a virtually forgotten period of Protestant dominance – had already helped mould the Viennese character by the end of the seventeenth century. The remainder of the book interweaves with great skill the various strands of Viennese civilisation in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The story ends in 1914, but in the last chapter Ilsa Barea glances forward to suggest that much more than legend survived the dissolution of the Habsburg Empire.

Between its covers Barea offers keen-eyed interpretations of significant figures from every sphere (the Emperors Joseph II and Franz Joseph, Schubert and the two Johann Strausses, Hofmannsthal and Freud in their early years, to name but a few); highlights how the great writers, as well as actor-dramatists such as Raimund and Nestroy, reflected their times; notes the gradation of social classes revealed in those ornamental labels ’von’ and ‘K.K.’; charts the changing styles of painting, architecture and interior decorations; analyses the influx of immigrants, the spread of appalling slums, and the rise of the labour movement; charts the origin and growth of anti-semitism; and much else besides.

Vienna, then, is warmly recommended to you. Meanwhile, below is the trailer for the National Gallery exhibition; and below that, a recording of George Steiner’s South Bank Show lecture ‘Vienna 1900′: essential, fruitful viewing for students of the period.

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