Yours to win: The classic film noir movie version of Gerald Kersh’s ‘Night and the City’ (1950)

night-and-the-city-dvdToday and all week, a very special Finds prize competition – the prize being a cult cinema classic to watch at home with the lights and the blinds down…

In respect of our current reissuing of the mighty Gerald Kersh we have noted more than once the way in which his name has stayed abroad thanks to the classic status of the movie version of his 1938 novel Night and the City. It seems likely that the movie’s director, Jules Dassin, never looked at Kersh’s novel, and the picture is not slavishly faithful to its source. Still, these two very worthy productions have probably been helpful to each other. Doubtless some readers come to Kersh by way of the film, and in turn admirers of the roman noir tend to have a fair bit of time for film noir too. To state it at its very mildest, Kersh certainly gifted the filmmakers a hell of a title. As film historian Paul Arthur puts it, ‘Within film noir’s unparalleled roster of resonant titles— Kiss of Death, Out of the Past, Where Danger Lives, to name three—none is more emblematic or iconographically cogent than Night and the City.’

To quote the Criterion label which have revived the movie on US DVD ‘Night and the City is film noir of the first order and one of the director’s crowning achievements.’ The estimable BFI Video offer a first-rate UK DVD of Night and the City to buy, including fascinating disc extras and accompanying booklet, and they’ve been so kind as to offer Finds a complimentary copy of the disc to give away.

For your chance to win it you have to do two things.

1. Answer these 2 questions correctly:
(i) Night and the City star Richard Widmark appeared in several other classic film noirs. Name the 1953 picture in which he played pickpocket Skip McCoy for writer-director Sam Fuller.
(ii) Gerald Kersh’s short story ‘The Horrible Dummy’ is generally thought to have unofficially inspired a segment of which classic ‘portmanteau’ British horror film of 1945?

This competition is now closed. Thanks to BFI Video.

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Eva Hoffman’s ‘Exit into History’

M1-Dr-Eva-HoffmanLast week the Independent offered a smart selection of the Best 10 Travel Memoirs, and we’re delighted to report that their #2 was a Find: Exit into History: A Journey Through the New Eastern Europe (1993) by the acclaimed writer and literary professor Eva Hoffman. The book is an account of a number of visits paid by Hoffman (a native of Kraków whose parents fled the Nazis) to Poland, Czechoslovakia, Romania and Bulgaria in the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall.

As Andrew Brown wrote in the Guardian, Exit into History is

‘not a history of the revolutions in eastern Europe, but an examination of how particular lives had been changed by them… an account of how people coped with being exiled into the future at the end of the Cold War.’

Reviewing the book in the Independent Godfrey Hodgson compared it favourably to Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon, describing it as

‘a mosaic built up of sketches of people, accounts of conversations, descriptions of places…. beautifully written, full of word pictures that stay in the mind: the taste of tokay poured for her by an entrepreneurial priest in a Hungarian village; the uncanny blue of the paint on an old monastery in the foothills of the Carpathians, the throb of gypsy music in a backroom dive hidden under the elegant skirts of a baroque city in Bohemia.’

For a chance to win a copy of Exit into History, you have to do two things.

1. Answer this question correctly: Which was the first of the Eastern European countries to break from the Soviet bloc in 1989 by its election of a non-Communist government?

Update: This competition is now closed.

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‘Larkin at Sixty’ (ed. Anthony Thwaite)

LarkinLarkin at Sixty is a festschrift – as its subject probably didn’t much care to hear it called – for Philip Larkin: a set of twenty essays in celebration of the poet by friends and acquaintances on the occasion of his sixtieth birthday in 1982. It was edited and introduced by Anthony Thwaite.

Within its pages you will find Alan Bennett on the sheer ‘incongruousness’ of throwing a party for Larkin; Kingsley Amis (who better?) remembering Larkin the undergraduate; Robert Conquest on the poet’s occasional and quite rude limericks; Charles Monteith on the experience of editing and publishing Larkin at Faber; Clive James on Larkin’s passion (!) for John Coltrane; Christopher Ricks on poetic style and structure in Larkin; Seamus Heaney on the ‘minute light’ and ‘poignant score’ of the poems… And that, incredibly, is not quite the half of it.

I happen to have a copy of Larkin at Sixty going spare. For a chance to win it, you have to do two things.

1. Answer this question correctly: For which of Kingsley Amis’s novels was Larkin famously credited by Amis for having made a decisive editorial contribution to the book’s subsequent success?

Update: This competition is now closed.

Good luck!

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Cathi Unsworth on Gerald Kersh: ‘Crackling with neon, lipstick, sweat and fear… master of the night’

Cathi Unsworth. (Photo by Fenris Oswin.)

Cathi Unsworth. (Photo by Fenris Oswin.)

As we have been celebrating recently, Finds has just reissued six titles – four novels, two collections of stories – by Gerald Kersh. And now we’ve just received this kind endorsement for our editions exclusively from the celebrated contemporary noir novelist Cathi Unsworth.

Cathi’s most recent novel (her fourth), Weirdo, was hailed by Doug Johnstone in the Independent as ‘her finest work yet’ and ‘an outstanding addition to the British crime-writing scene.’ Johnstone also hymned ‘her ability to evoke a specific time and place with an intense and visceral skill.’

Cathi is a vociferous admirer of Kersh’s work and we’re pleased to set down her thoughts on the great man as follows:


“It was Derek Raymond who first told me about Gerald Kersh and how he considered him to be the master chronicler of London’s lowlife. It took me a long time to track him down, his lost prints were even harder to lift from the second hand shops of the Nineties than those of Raymond’s other forgotten forebear, Patrick Hamilton. But boy, was it worth the rummage.

imagesWith Kersh it is not just the authenticity of the characters – the spivvy chancers with faux American gangster accents; the sweaty, sexually twisted killers lurking in the bombsites for stray children to pass; and the weary working girls who have to put up with men like these. It is the hyper-sensitised way in which he tells their stories, the prose so crackling with neon, lipstick, sweat and fear that it feels almost hallucinatory.

With a peerless eye for human weakness and a feeling for the city that renders his ever-descending London a character – paranoid, alluring, treacherous, lascivious – in its own sprawling right, Kersh is indeed the master of both the city and the night.”

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‘Strange and beautiful': J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s ‘In A Glass Darkly’, and the BFI Gothic season

gc14_cThe much-ballyhooed monster BFI season in celebration of the Gothic is now underway all around the country and will roll on through the dark and misty autumn now before us. Your correspondent recommends BFI Gothic to you keenly, not least because he has written a chapter for the season’s scholarly and beautifully illustrated tie-in catalogue. But there is another reason… one that has lain within the vaults of Finds for some years now.

Our library here contains many panelled sub-chambers, nooks and corner cabinets. And within one moody recess you will find our offerings in the genre of the supernatural – ‘tales of mystery and imagination’, to borrow a phrase from a master. One title we cherish especially is our edition of J. Sheridan Le Fanu’s story collection In a Glass Darkly (which revives a 1929 printing with illustrations by Edward Ardizzone, one of the best and most distinctive illustrators of the twentieth century.)

LeFanu-Best-Ghost-StoriesIn A Glass Darkly is famous above all for the tale called ‘Carmilla’ (1872) – a delicate, rather touching, sensuous and deeply sinister fairytale about a young girl who makes a lovely but disconcerting female friend of her own age, one who takes to visiting her by night. J. Sheridan Le Fanu was just one leading figure in the distinctive Irish contribution to the Gothic. Another, of course, was Bram Stoker, who unquestionably borrowed a trick or two from ‘Carmilla’ for his later Dracula (1897).

The most adored of ‘Carmilla’’s several movie adaptations is The Vampire Lovers, a 1970 offering from the UK’s mighty Hammer Films, and a deathless testament to the screen presence of its leading lady, the late Ingrid Pitt (1937-2010), whose life story was more extraordinary than any supernatural yarn. (Born Ingoushka Petrov in Warsaw, 1937, she was a childhood survivor of Stutthof concentration camp and an alumnus of the Berliner Ensemble before she and Hammer made their bloodily marvellous marriage of talents.)

Ingrid Pitt (leftI in 'The Vampire Lovers'

Ingrid Pitt (leftI in ‘The Vampire Lovers’

The Vampire Lovers was considered highly racy at the time of its release, and it remains a souvenir of Pitt’s lustrous good looks. It is reasonably faithful to Le Fanu, too, in serving up the story of a beautiful stranger who insinuates herself into a respectable Styrian household so as to prey upon the young mistress. Pitt is a persuasive incarnation of the creature described by Le Fanu’s narrator Laura (‘Her movements were languid — very languid… her eyes large, dark, and lustrous; her hair was quite wonderful, I never saw hair so magnificently thick and long…’)

Relations between the two young females soon turn physical, very darkly so; but if you think Hammer made matters a little over-steamy then consider how unrestrained Le Fanu was for his time in limning the Sapphic tendency. Here is Laura speaking of her

‘strange and beautiful companion… gazing in my face with languid and burning eyes, and breathing so fast that her dress rose and fell with the tumultuous respiration. It was like the ardour of a lover… she drew me to her, and her hot lips travelled along my cheek in kisses; and she would whisper, almost in sobs, “You are mine, you shall be mine, and you and I are one for ever”…’

Yes, it’s probably that kind of thing that has led my fellow catalogue contributor Charlie Higson to describe the Gothic style as “straight-laced, buttoned-up, boring kitchen-sink Britain letting its hair down.” Except that the London readership enjoyed in his day by the Dubliner Le Fanu reminds us that the Victorians were drunk with passion for all this stuff too…

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Gerald Kersh: champion yarn-spinner, superior word-crafter, and scholar of human follies

kershA fine piece by David Collard in the TLS last month made note of the current revived interest in the writings of the remarkable Gerald Kersh, six of whose titles we now offer in Finds. Forty-five years after he left us Kersh still suffers from little better than the ‘large, vague renown’ Orwell famously ascribed to Thomas Carlyle. But, really, everyone ought to read him – at least one of his works, at least once.

Kersh is remembered chiefly for Night and the City (1938), one of the great novels of London’s Soho, driven by its shabby anti-hero Harry Fabian. Jules Dassin’s 1950 film version starring Richard Widmark has certainly helped that book to endure. But Kersh’s novel lives on by itself because it teems with adroitly observed forms of (low) life, and it still feels like the real thing. Readers who come newly to Kersh usually sense quite soon from his salty, word-rich presence on the page that this was a writer who lived fully, and who never missed a trick. Evidently all he saw was of interest to him, not to say fair game.

smallKersh does have his notable and steadfast champions today: Harlan Ellison has vigorously sought to promote awareness of a man whose talent he considered ‘immense and compelling’; Michael Moorcock is the ‘sometime executor’ of the Kersh estate and has kindly made possible Faber Finds’ reissues; while cinema book specialist Paul Duncan has also been an avid advocate for Kersh, and is understood to have been at work awhile on a biography. What general readers may know of Kersh for the moment is largely down to the information these men have placed in the public domain.

Kersh was born in Teddington on August 26 1911. Writing as a meaningful pastime came quickly to him, such that he soon sniffed a vocation. He quit schooling early, and raced through a succession of jobs as if seeking to go one better on Hemingway’s maxim that a novelist ought to have a friend in every occupation. In 1934 he published a roman a clef, Jews without Jehovah, but it wasn’t on sale for very long, since three uncles and a cousin of Kersh’s made out unflattering renderings of themselves within its pages, and sought legal redress – apparently a lasting source of tension at Kersh family occasions.

nelson guardsFollowing the outbreak of war Kersh joined the Coldstream Guards in 1940 and seems to have been rated a decent soldier. His first stint of leave was during the Luftwaffe’s Blitz, whereupon he narrowly escaped fatal injury but was thereafter reassigned to desk duties. In 1941 he drew on his Guardsman experience to write They Die with their Boots Clean, a classic fictional account of basic training, and he enjoyed a surprise bestseller with a work that is richly illustrative of his gift for refining into print things you can well imagine he actually heard. (Finds offers the book, bound up with its sequel The Nine Lives of Bill Nelson, under the title given this pairing by their US publisher: Sergeant Nelson of the Guards.)

best ofThereafter Kersh would be phenomenally productive: a writer not merely of novels and stories but of journalism, sketches and columns, radio and documentary film scripts. After the war he settled in the US and there made himself a fixture in popular magazines that paid well for stories and brought him to huge readerships: The Saturday Evening Post, Esquire, Collier’s, Playboy. Kersh’s stories are the most accessible demonstration of his protean gifts: the strange and fantastical tales are especially cherished, and may be sampled in Finds’ reissues of The Horrible Dummy and Other Stories as well as a broader selection chosen by Simon Raven entitled The Best of Gerald Kersh.)

hunterKersh wrote so much, his printed output was so compendious, that one might suppose he never had time to blot a line. And yet his sentence-making is remarkably strong. He was both a singular talent and a hard grafter: a crafter of sentences, spinner of yarns, scholar of human follies. His living by the pen, however, seems to have been rarely better than precarious, for a variety of reasons: he had money troubles, personal troubles, health troubles, and over time these tended to come at him in battalions. Amid this turmoil he could still produce Fowler’s End (1958), judged by Anthony Burgess as ‘one of the best comic novels of the century.’ Burgess was also a champion of The Implacable Hunter (1961, also my favourite of all Kersh’s works); and The Angel and the Cuckoo (1966) earned Kersh more high praise. But by then he was very nearly through: he died in New York on 5th November 1968, aged 57. He remains one of those writers perpetually in need of revival, admired by near enough all who read him, awaiting still his golden hour of evangelism. The reader, if not already a convert, is warmly invited to start here.

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Among the Italian Partisans: Resistance recalled in Stuart Hood’s ‘Pebbles From My Skull’

Stuart Hood, during his time as head of the BBC’s Italian section, approximately the time when he wrote Pebbles From My Skull.

Stuart Hood, during his time as head of the BBC’s Italian section, approximately the time when he wrote Pebbles From My Skull.

Last month we were honoured to restore to print – and to premiere in e-bookPebbles From My Skull (1963), Stuart Hood’s extraordinary memoir of fighting alongside Italian Partisans. Our edition is blessed by a richly informative new preface by Stuart Hood’s widow, social scientist Svetlana Hood, in which she writes:

‘This reissue coincides with the seventieth anniversary of the Italian Armistice – in short, the surrender of Italy to the Allied Forces on 8 September 1943 and the beginning of the long, uncertain and torturous path towards the total liberation of Italy and Europe from Fascism. It coincides also with Captain Stuart Hood’s escape on 9 September from one of the 72 P.O.W camps in Italy – the P.G.49, based in the village of Fontanellato di Parma. Over four hundred officers, captured in the African desert, left the converted orphanage in Fontanellato – the Italian camp commander, who aided the escape, was sent to a concentration camp in Germany.

The armistice was followed by a mass-escape of prisoners-of-war. Some historians describe it as ‘the greatest mass-escape in history.’ Of a total population of some 80,000 prisoners-of-war in Italian hands, approximately 50,000 had the chance to leave their camps. They came from a variety of nationalities and backgrounds. Only one in four of those who emerged from the camps would escape recapture… To a large extent the peasant population supported and sustained the floating population of escapees and guerrilla fighters. This was a crucial alliance which benefited both parties but which had many risks attached to it. Captain Edward Mumford and Captain Stuart Hood decided to embark together on a long walk that took them over the Emilian Apennines into Tuscany. They always relied on this alliance for their survival. Along the way they encountered partisan and guerrilla fighters. At times they turned into such fighters themselves…

Stuart Hood’s false identity papers issued while he was a guerrilla fighter with the Monte Amiata formation in 1944

Stuart Hood’s false identity papers issued while he was a guerrilla fighter with the Monte Amiata formation in 1944

The story of escape and survival told in PEBBLES FROM MY SKULL is not an anthropological description of peasant life in the strict sense of the term. It is not a chronological account of the adventures of an escapee turned (at times) guerrilla fighter, although it has occasional elements of same. No diaries were kept and therefore the recollections could not be cross-referenced. No interviews were carried out and so the data could not be compared or verified…

Stuart Hood made several attempts to write a book about his time in Italy. All attempts, in his view, failed. Finally, and following a lengthy course of psychoanalysis, the key existential question became apparent: ‘Why did it take me from the 8 September 1943 to 15 August 1944 to cross the line, reassume my identity, step back out of limbo?’ The search for answers allowed him to reassess meaningfully his time as an escapee, to understand better the nature of the experience he went through and the complexities – methodological and philosophical – of writing a piece of autobiographical work. Thus in the words of the Hutchinson editors, ‘His book is no blood-and-thunder record of adventure. It is contemplative reflection.’

Stuart Hood died in January 2011. The media studies academic Brian Winston wrote a fine obituary for him in the Guardian, which in turn spurred this felt tribute from a former colleague, Peter Lewis, who refers to ‘the attractive mystery that was Stuart Hood.’ Any assessment of Hood’s career outline would suggest that he was a man who contained multitudes. Born in Scotland in 1915, he enlisted in the British Army in 1940. After the tumultuous events remembered in Pebbles From My Skull he joined the BBC, becoming head of the World Service and eventually Controller of TV Programmes. He authored novels and books about mass media, and was also a distinguished translator of European literature. This 2002 interview with Hood by Stefan Howald will tell you much about a man of truly plenary consciousness.

The subject of the Italian Resistance, meanwhile, remains alive to historical inquiry, if prone still to controversy inside and out of Italy, since it cannot be surgically detached from an assessment of Mussolini and Italian Fascism, and the elements of the story that testify most clearly to the qualities of the human spirit have also, here and there, been elevated to the status of myth. A tangle of thorns, then, perhaps. But if you come newly to this history, or simply wish for a refresher, an interesting place to start is the recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘The Italian Freedom Trail’, presented by Edward Stourton. You can listen on BBC iPlayer here.

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Hugh Fleetwood’s deep, dark literary paintings

hugh2‘It is Hugh Fleetwood’s great ability as a novelist’ – Peter Ackroyd once wrote in the Spectator‘to analyse the world of the rich, to test it with violence and to subtly probe its corruption.’ From this you may surmise that Fleetwood is a writer with a keen eye for the dark stirrings that shift about under gilded surfaces. This was certainly the view of the Scotsman’s George Duthie: ‘Mr Fleetwood can write like a dream… and really get into your head. He reaches down and stirs with venomous delight the nameless, faceless things swimming far below the level of consciousness.’

How nice, one might say, to have that kind of talent! And without doubt the dominant tone of Hugh Fleetwood’s fiction is elegantly unnerving, at times macabre. Moreover, prose is not his only talent: he has been acclaimed both as a novelist and a painter, a writer whose remarkable art has also adorned the covers of his fictions. Finds is proud to be releasing a selection of Hugh’s finest works through the latter half of 2013, albeit in plainer wrappers than embellished the originals.

Out now are the novels The Girl Who Passed for Normal (winner of the John Llewellyn Rhys Prize for 1973), The Order of Death (subsequently made into a film starring Harvey Keitel and John Lydon) and An Artist and a Magician (the work that earned Peter Ackroyd’s approval as above.) To follow in November are the story collections The Beast (1979), Fictional Lives (1982) and The Man Who Went Down with his Ship (1984). Each book includes an extensive Q&A between Hugh and your Faber Finds editor about the work and his inspirations.

girlBorn in Sussex in 1944 Hugh left England as a young man, feeling stifled (as so many did in those times) by a class-ridden society that was more or less waiting for the 1960s to shake it from deferential torpor. He went from Paris to Munich to Florence, until in Rome he found the place he had been looking for, and which would imbue his work with a highly distinctive expatriate/Anglo-Italian dimension. He landed there at the tail end of the dolce vita era; coming round the corner were the Red Brigades. Rome was surely the ideal place where Hugh could develop his gift for detecting lethal unease in the lives of the apparently well-tended.

On the literary map Rome is also one of the locations where Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley realizes his own talent – albeit the talent for bumping people off as an accelerated form of social climbing. Highsmith was one of Hugh Fleetwood’s early literary loves (he was in particular a fan of her marvelous The Blunderer) and his work certainly stands comparison with hers. But when I put it to Hugh that I saw in his work some of Highsmith’s famous interest in ‘the effect of guilt’ upon her heroes, he demurred:

“Not ‘guilt’, that’s not something I really recognize. I would say I’m interested in characters coming to terms with things, in themselves and in the world. It’s about their arriving at a knowledge, of murder, of death… And then they use this, and grow out of what they were.”

artistThis certainly applies to the widowed English dancer who acts as paid companion and tutor to the disturbed daughter of a rich American woman in The Girl Who Passed For Normal; also to the corrupt NYPD Narcotics Bureau officer who is goaded out of his secret world by a serial murderer of cops in The Order of Death; and to the social gadfly in An Artist and a Magician who is forced to confront his parasitical relations with the wealthy sponsors who have kept him in the style to which he’s grown too accustomed.

For all that there is a strong strain of the dark stuff in Hugh Fleetwood’s fiction, one would never guess it on the strength of acquaintance with him. So what makes his writing so menacing? Hugh, like most serious writers, has resisted too much self-scrutiny:

“I’ve tried never to analyse where the work comes from, because I’m afraid if I did then it would all disappear. The same with my painting – people ask me what a picture means and I say, ‘I have no idea.’ Someone once suggested to me, when I was being more than usually neurotic, that I should go see an analyst. I said, ‘No, that would destroy any talent that I’ve got…’”

orderIn our Q&A Hugh also offers some memorable stories about the filming of Order of Death, disclosing how the project was helped along by the director of Rambo; how a highly distinguished British actor then fresh out of drama school nearly scooped the role eventually taken by John Lydon; and how Hugh struck up an unlikely but affable friendship with Lydon during the New York shoot of the movie, including a highly enjoyable joint visit to the NY Metropolitan Opera which nonetheless took in some distinctly punk-rock behaviour… Read on and read all about it.

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Out now: the exquisite sentences of ‘Flesh’ and ‘The Finishing Touch’ by Brigid Brophy

brophy_bPrepare to be ravished. The first titles in our retrospective of Brigid Brophy are now on sale: the novels Flesh (1962) and The Finishing Touch (1963). In hindsight Brophy still cuts a singular figure as novelist, critic, feminist, pacifist, campaigner for the rights of authors and of animals and connoisseur of art and opera. These two novels are shining examples of her flair for elegant prose and erotic daring.

Both of the novels contain new prefaces. For the latter we are delighted to say that Sir Peter Stothard has done the honours: among his comments is the following:

finishing

Brigid Brophy, when remembered at all today, is remembered for other works than this, which is her finest. To read THE FINISHING TOUCH today is to enter an almost forgotten sensibility. Every sentence is there to be weighed, stroked and smelled. The mixture of languages, the mocking allusions, the merciless way with snobbism: all produce a sense of extended pause and perilous calm. Instead of hastening from paragraph to paragraph in the modern manner, the reader is drawn back after every few lines to sniff the night airs again…

The preface for Flesh is by yours truly, Finds editor-in-chief, and among other things I say this:

flesh

In sexual fables of instructor and protégée it is, traditionally, a man who takes the lead and a woman who follows, whether or not wholly willing. Thus Pygmalion and Galatea, George Bernard Shaw’s famous variation on same, and so forth. In her third novel FLESH Brigid Brophy turns the tables, without fuss or contrivance, but with great style and acute perception. If women are usually seen, for cosmetic reasons, as the more mutable sex, in FLESH it is a man who is transformed, both in body and mind, under a woman’s skilful hands. The process of change, though, runs on a little further than either party had quite bargained for…

Readers will want to discover the rest of this short and succulent novel for themselves. It’s worth saying, though, in point of the woeful neglect of Brigid Brophy’s work during the latter years of her life and since her death – a neglect now being redressed by a new generation of admirers – that given our endless interest in matters of sex and gender it is a stunning thing that a writer so uncommonly sharp on these subjects as Brophy should ever have slipped out of currency.

Just for instance, had there been a Literary Good Sex Award for grabs in 1962 she would surely have been a nominee, and on account of numerous passages, such as that when she writes of Marcus and Nancy making love on chill mornings partly to keep warm: ‘… instead of pulling up a blanket to cover them they applied to one another. Marcus could plunge himself into Nancy with all the delicious casualness of a man lying on a river bank and lazily inserting his leg in the warm stream, sensitive to, delighted by, the pulsing of the vigorous current against it.’

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Guest post: On Angus Wilson, and the light, humane touch of a serious heavyweight

angus-wilson-1-sizedGreat contentment at Finds Towers this week as the Guardian ran a splendid appreciation of Angus Wilson upon his centenary, by D.J. Taylor. The piece made generous mention of most of the Wilson titles we offer in Finds (e.g. Such Darling Dodos, Hemlock and After, Anglo-Saxon Attitudes, The Middle Age of Mrs Eliot, as well as Margaret Drabble’s biography Angus Wilson.)

But it seems that riches abound for us, for we are pleased to offer here another in our occasional series of guest blogs by Finds readers: in this case, a marvellous essay in praise of Wilson by Andrew Cheeseman, a bookseller who also blogs here.

(Remember, we’re always delighted to showcase thoughts on/evaluations of the books we revive by regular readers who like to follow our doings on social media – so if there’s a Finds title you’d be especially eager to write about, by all means drop us a line to finds@faber.co.uk.)

But now, over to Andrew on Wilson:

drabble

Angus Wilson was one of those authors who I had kept hearing about, but never actually found in bookshops. I had been intrigued by Malcolm Bradbury’s enthusiastic coverage of him in THE MODERN BRITISH NOVEL, but didn’t have any success finding his novels until I started trawling charity shops, and their spinners of old Penguin paperbacks. I found HEMLOCK AND AFTER and SUCH DARLING DODOS in a charity shop in Winchester, on holiday. I devoured them both over that holiday. The early stories and novels’ acerbic gallery of chancers, hypocrites, neurotics, and the deluded but well-meaning middle-classes fascinated me.

In fact, as soon as you read Wilson, you start to notice more of these characters in real life, and also feel oddly sympathetic for them. Wilson, cunningly, while making you laugh, has also made you feel a degree of sympathy and understanding for them. You begin to see peculiar pathologies behind others’ behaviour. (Or maybe that’s just me.) Either way, I got a bit hooked, and developed a minor addiction to hunting down Wilson (and other semi-lost authors) in charity shops wherever I went.

hemlock-after-angus-wilsonI love Wilson because he is the only author I know who develops and becomes more sophisticated without losing the qualities he originally had. The early stories’ satirical exposure of pretensions, class distinctions, and tiny acts of cruelty becomes something socially broader, and more nuanced in the Fifties novels. You get decent, but morally compromised figures such as Bernard Sands and Gerald Middleton, and their vexed relationships with families who are often no longer people they like, but still people they love. In fact British society in Wilson’s Fifties novels seems as conflicted as the Sixties is often perceived to be; generational gaps, class and ideological divides take centre stage in them. He is not dissimilar to early Aldous Huxley, in puzzling and prodding pleasurably but sceptically at the ideals and manners of his time. Wilson was also much influenced by Dickens, and his Dickensian grotesques become, somehow, more extreme, but no less plausible. Mrs Curry, the procuress in HEMLOCK AND AFTER, is a deeply sinister woman, who conceals her activities in a veneer of chintzy sentimentality, and almost proto-‘free love’ ideas.

Come the novels of the 1960s you get the impression that Wilson is gradually integrating his love of Modernism with his passion for the big Victorian-style ‘social’ novel. THE OLD MEN AT THE ZOO starts realistically, and morphs rapidly into a faintly grisly dystopian metaphor for the decline of empire. LATE CALL is less bold, but, to my mind, more subtly successful. Sylvia Calvert is probably Wilson’s most sympathetic, and well rounded, character: a woman forced to move herself and her husband in with their rather priggish, recently widowed son in the idealistic New Town of Carshall. Sylvia is cut adrift in an age and a place to which she can’t quite adjust despite her attempts to try. Her husband, another Wilson character whose pride results in lies on a grand scale, creates problems for her too. But while her son’s ideals wither in the face of conflict with his friends, neighbours and his children, Sylvia’s pragmatic decency holds the family together.

laughingNO LAUGHING MATTER, though, remains my favourite of Wilson’s novels. An ambitious fusion of modernist stylistic strategies and neat pastiches of other authors, with the satirical social novel Wilson had perfected earlier, it follows the Matthews family through fifty years of personal and public history, as they go their very different paths, following different ideologies and careers, and watching the world change hugely from the secure pre-war Edwardian era they grew up in. It is difficult to summarise the novel beyond that, because it does so much. Its stylistic shifts alone deserve a book-length study. If you had to summarise it, you could perhaps say it is Virginia Woolf meets Charles Dickens. It certainly manages the social range of the latter, and gets close to the psychological depth of the former.

magicHis next novel, AS IF BY MAGIC, returned to the more explicit comedy of the earlier works. It’s an extremely funny romp that follows a baffled but brilliant scientist and his hippy god-daughter as they globetrot separately, mixing East and West, science and belief, sex and celibacy, high on grotesques and misunderstanding. For some reason, it reminds me a little of Evelyn Waugh’s broader comedies such as BLACK MISCHIEF or SCOOP, though I think it is more nuanced than either of those. Its main protagonist Hamo (the scientist) is a lovely creation: extremely clever in his field, but decidedly unworldly, he strains against his homosexual longings, and becomes increasingly concerned at the political effects of his scientific work. The novel deals with ‘heavy’ issues in a light-handed and sceptical way that never feels facile or shallow. In fact, that might be a good précis of what Wilson does – he writes serious fiction that wears its seriousness lightly. The later novels are bursting with ambition and ideas, and also an enthusiasm for the breadth of what the novel can do. It is only on re-reading that you realise that the multiple plot lines, time and geographical shifts, have been planned and juxtaposed perfectly.

It has always seemed bizarre to me that an author of Wilson’s stature fell out of print at all. I mean, it is lovely to have a ‘secret’ author, one that is shared by a small but passionate following, like some kind of literary Masonic handshake; but, frankly, Angus Wilson deserves better. His books are too varied, too clever, too inventive, too fully engaged with the peculiarities of human lives, and too plain enjoyable, to languish in semi-obscurity (with the odd academic writing a thesis about him every decade). He should be, as he once was, ranked alongside the major authors of the post-war period. I think my favourite quote about Angus Wilson is from Edmund White’s review of AS IF BY MAGIC: ‘If too much humanity bulging out of the frame of a narrative constitutes an artistic problem, then it is an enviable problem indeed.’ An excess of humanity is something you find in all of Wilson’s novels, and it is the best reason I can think of to read him.

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