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Four Favourites (with a u): Wyndham, Hartley, Johnson, Conrad

Since this is a book blog, or at least a blog for a bookstore, I thought I'd actually blog about books, rather than my book tour, world news, or the writer's lot. Why not? And not even just books I like, but books I own.

I assume that most people reading this like second-hand bookstores. I'm sure there's a good reason for new bookstores to exist — and thank God that they do — but, really, new books just don't seem quite second-hand enough most of the time. Besides, this blog is a nice opportunity to enthuse about some books I love, perhaps even to exhibit their beautiful covers.

On my last trip to Powell's — you're not really trying unless you leave with a book you weren't expecting to leave with — I bought a very nice two-in-one paperback of Nancy Mitford's The Pursuit of Love and Love in a Cold Climate that kept me happy for the rest of the week, but what I'd been hoping to find was anything (and there isn't much) by Francis Wyndham, a not-terribly-well-known English writer, whose Complete Fiction takes up 300 pages of a single NYRB volume, the very one I was hoping to buy. I had to wait until Christmas when my sister, having muddled our Amazon wish lists, very kindly bought it for my wife. It was the best present my wife was ever given.

Wyndham wrote a book of short stories in the 1940s, Out of the War, which wasn't published until 1974; then, in 1987, at the age of 63, he went on to become perhaps the oldest ever winner of the Whitbread First Novel Award for a shortie called The Other Garden. I came to him in a peculiar way. I heard three of his stories read by Bill Nighy and Amanda Root on BBC Radio 4: one, curiously moving, about a schoolmaster ("The Facts of Life"), another ("Matchlight") about a thwarted story of wartime romance that pulls the reader (or listener) this way and that, in a way quite typical of his work. Even these didn't prepare me for this book, which starts with a story about a schoolboy who thinks his mother has a penis. I thoroughly recommend Wyndham's entire short fiction, not to mention his short entire fiction — he spent most of his life writing criticism — and perhaps there's a stray copy in Powell's by now.

The penis story, Mrs. Henderson, brought to mind L. P. Hartley, an author about whom I can go on for hours. I'll drone for a little now.

The Go-Between, which you may well have read (particularly if you're British and went to school) — or even seen, starring Julie Christie and Alan Bates, script by Pinter — is a fantastic book, but the Eustace & Hilda trilogy, particularly the first installment The Shrimp and the Anemone, is Hartley's masterpiece: superb psychology, beautiful sentences. The covers of the British and the American editions (for some reason, though obviously not to capitalize on a TV series that wouldn't air for 60 years, renamed The West Wing) are both lovely.

I bought that copy of The Shrimp and the Anemone in Cecil Court, London, on a recent trip. I wanted this particular first edition because it has an inscription by Hartley to Pamela Hansford Johnson (Baroness Snow — she was married to C. P., whose hefty books I may never manage to open). She wrote another favourite book of mine, The Unspeakable Skipton, a thinly veiled depiction of the later years of the genius and charlatan Frederick Rolfe, better known as Baron Corvo, author of Hadrian the VII, a book whose British first edition is unspeakably beautiful and quite out of our price range. That's the thing about books: once you get interested in one thing... I particularly like the way Hartley has signed himself with his last name only, in inverted commas, as though he might be an imposter. I bought that copy without a dustjacket (possibly why I could afford it) and so I wrapped it in the cover from a hardback copy of the fourth edition that I already owned. I still own that now-dustjacket-free edition, and I'd be glad to mail it to anyone who emails me at wesley (at) wesleystace (dot) com (by Tuesday noon, EST) with the similarity between L. P. Hartley's middle name and Joseph Conrad. (The winner will be chosen at random by my four-year-old daughter. The winner will have the pleasure of seeing "£75 — 3 Vols" written inside the front cover, though they will be receiving 1 Vol., well-bound and sturdy, worth about £5.)

I bought my other favourite Hartley item on eBay for next to nothing: Hartley's copy of the second edition of Joseph Conrad's Nostromo in which he sketched his own map of Conrad's fictional Costaguana (here heavily enhanced by photoshop) as if to get it straight in his head. If you follow it clockwise, and compare it to the book, you can just make out the following references: Azuera, Railway, Town of Sulaco, Giorgio Viola's Hotel, Casa Gould, Custom House, Harbour, OSN Office, Higuerota, Cordillera, Punta Mala, Isabels.

Lord Jim, rather than Nostromo, was Hartley's favourite Conrad novel, as he explains in the 1967 essay "The Novelist's Responsibility": "After thirty years I can still remember those two words in Lord Jim, which recur so heartbreakingly — "I jumped". There is a life's tragedy in them. Joseph Conrad, as we all know, was a Pole, and when he was 17 or 18 he went to live as a sailor in the South of France, after which he settled in England. There was no overwhelming reason, as far as I know, why he should not have left Poland, but he regarded it as a desertion, almost as a betrayal. Lord Jim was first or second mate (I can't remember which!) of his ship, and he could not afterwards forgive himself for leaving it to sink, with the pilgrims on it — against all the traditions of seamanship. Nor could Conrad forgive himself for leaving Poland, which was another sinking ship. The feeling of guilt he had about it, and the fact that he could not help identifying himself with Lord Jim, make the novel one of his best."

I must read Lord Jim.

÷ ÷ ÷

Wesley Stace's newest book is Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer. He is also the author of the international bestseller Misfortune and By George. He has released 15 albums under the name John Wesley Harding. Get more information at his website,

Books mentioned in this post

  1. Charles Jessold, Considered as a... Used Trade Paper $7.95
  2. Misfortune Used Trade Paper $4.50
  3. By George Used Trade Paper $6.95
  4. Other Garden and Collected Stories New Mass Market $17.00
  5. The Complete Fiction (New York... Sale Trade Paper $8.98
  6. Love in a Cold Climate (Vintage) Used Trade Paper $5.95
  7. The Pursuit of Love (Vintage) Used Trade Paper $8.00
  8. Shrimp & the Anemone New Mass Market $7.50
  9. The Go-Between
    Sale Trade Paper $7.98
  10. Nostromo (Dover Thrift Editions) Used Trade Paper $4.00

  11. Eustace and Hilda (New York Review... Used Trade Paper $7.50
  12. Lord Jim (Penguin Twentieth-Century... Used Trade Paper $3.50

  13. Mrs. Henderson New Mass Market $9.50

Wesley Stace is the author of Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer

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