by Wesley Stace, February 11, 2011 11:01 AM
I'll finish my week's bookish blog work with a word about Patrick Hamilton
He's a writer you grow up knowing about without really knowing his writing: his two greatest successes were the play Gaslight, which became, more than once, a famous movie, and another play, Rope, which Hitchcock turned into the memorable "you-think-it's-one-continuous-shot" movie.
For years, Hamilton's novels were out of print. Then, a few years ago, the rock band Marah recorded an album called 20,000 Streets Under The Sky, named for one of Hamilton's two trilogies (consisting of the novels The Midnight Bell, The Siege of Pleasure and The Plains of Cement, recently made into a stellar three part British TV series): it seemed like this was the first anyone had heard of Patrick Hamilton for years. I remember being asked if I'd read him, and I said I had, later realising I was muddling him with a writer from Rye called Patric Dickinson, who has nothing to do with Hamilton whatsoever.
When I realised I hadn't.... what a treat was in store. Though there was great difficulty in actually finding the novels, I finally located them and read them religiously. And, as so often happens, as though the world is all thinking the same thing at the same time, the better known of the novels slowly started being reissued. (In some cases, not very well: the recent reissue of 20,000 Streets has more misprints per page than any other book I've recently read, except the American edition of Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Benjamin Britten, which someone forgot to proofread.) By then, however, I was hooked: I remember finding a paperback of Craven House, written in 1926 when Hamilton was 22, then later revised, in the mystery section of a most unlikely bookstore in Troy, NY.
Prices of first editions were already through the roof, and I have never been able to find an affordable copy of the UK first edition of Hangover Square, considered his greatest work. I do however love the cover of the American first edition, so that's some recompense.
Hangover Square, the story of a schizophrenic composer — he loves Netta or he wants to kill Netta, depending on his mood which is governed by the arbitrary "click" in his head, and not helped by his amazing alcohol intake — is a masterpiece of tone and dark comedy. It was also filmed in Hollywood, though the finished version (without being a terrible dud, and despite a gripping Bernard Herrmann score that was highly influential on Stephen Sondheim) bears hardly any relation to Hamilton's novel.
My favourite of Hamilton's books — also made into an excellent UK TV series, The Charmer, some time back in the 80s — is Mr. Stimpson & Mr. Gorse, the UK first edition of which has this amazing, and amazingly appropriate, cover.
This is the second in Hamilton's other trilogy, now collected as The Gorse Trilogy, but it's hard to recommend The Gorse Trilogy unreservedly, for, although the first two volumes (the other of which is The West Pier), are fantastic, by the third, Unknown Assailant, the writer has lost all interest in his subject and is merely going through the motions.
Hamilton's was not a happy life — he was disfigured when he was run over by a car (similar to the accident in The Siege of Pleasure) and he fell ruinously in love with a prostitute, as does the dull but decent protagonist in The Midnight Bell. For anyone who has read his books, the least surprise is that he was an alcoholic — his descriptions of the interiors of British pubs, where an extraordinary percentage of the action in his novels take place, its clientele and customs, will never be bettered. (I gently pastiched it in one later passage in Charles Jessold. My narrator found himself, rather unexpectedly, in a pub, and I let him imagine himself into the scene as written by Patrick Hamilton.)
Hamilton's sentences are beautiful, and his novels are gripping, though they often seem out of date, their stakes small: Gorse, the conman and sexual predator, is always ruining people by conning them out of seventy-five quid — perhaps it is we who have been ruined by a world of easy credit. They are also screamingly funny, Wodehouse-funny. I recommend three passages: firstly, Chapter 3 in Mr. Stimpson & Mr. Gorse, where the would-be poet Major Parry, who has had some limited success in this direction, is attempting to write a weighty poem for the local newspaper on the subject of war, and gets stuck for rhymes; secondly, Chapter 4, where the men at the bar of The Friar ("a pub that had only recently been Ye-Olded, and this had been lavishly done") tell jokes, trying to one-up each other as they tell jokes or "one-about" — a brilliant, subtle dissection of the power-play in every seemingly innocent conversation. And in The Slaves of Solitude — the only one of his novels which deals directly with the war, and even has somewhat of a happy ending — read Chapter 5, where meek Miss Roach tries to stand up to Mr. Thwaites, the evil bully in the dining room of the Rosamund Tea Rooms, the shabby boarding house where they find themselves living during the war.
It's interesting that Hamilton's work is so easily, or rather so well, filmed and/or televised. But despite the quality of Rope, Gaslight, 20,000 Streets Under The Sky and The Charmer, go for the books first. The poise of Hamilton's tragi-comic tone cannot be reproduced by dialogue alone. Pour yourself a large whiskey and sit back.
by Wesley Stace, February 10, 2011 10:04 AM
Some books are so beautiful, you have to buy them. But who wants a book that merely looks nice? You might as well get something you can hang on a wall. The ideal is a book that looks wonderful and is also great. For example, my friend Rob's wonderful edition of Byron with a fore-edge illustration that reveals itself to you only gradually: step one, step two.
At the very top of this select list is Tristram Shandy by Laurence Sterne, published in nine volumes from 1760-1767.
During the very dawn of the internet, when it was a wild cowboy frontier, I saw advertised a first edition of Tristram Shandy for, I think, $500. It could have been more than that, but not much more. I bought it (and now feel slightly guilty about owning it.) This particular edition came housed in a lovely bespoke case, in which the books sit horizontally.
Vol 9 is slightly larger than the others, and the boxmaker went to the trouble of sculpting extra space inside so the box remains perfectly rectangular. Volumes 5 & 7 are signed by Sterne: in all true first editions, 5, 7 & 9 are signed, but in this version I manage to have a first edition of Volume 9, in this case the rogue outsize volume, that is not signed. By the time Sterne had reached Vol 5 — the third installment, since the volumes were issued in pairs — the book was so popular, and had spawned so many bootlegs and parodies, that the author went to the trouble of signing the newest editions himself, just to prove they were real. What is particularly interesting is that, to prove his authorship, he signed his name "L. Sterne", although he is identified only as "The Author" elsewhere in the book. In other words, the first edition only has the Sterne's name in it if he wrote it there himself.
There was recently a film of Tristram Shandy with Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon, directed by Michael Winterbottom. It was as though, in the massive Venn Diagram of Film Demographics, I found myself where all the circles overlap, the movie's perfect audience. I am an ardent Shandean, I revere Steve Coogan, I love Rob Brydon, and I even kinda like the movies of Michael Winterbottom. But I didn't enjoy it much. It nailed the pre-postmodernity of the book without paying it the respect of caring for its characters — everyone was a cardboard cut-out. Tristram Shandy wouldn't have lasted so long (defying Dr Johnson's prediction) if the characters hadn't been sympathetic and the book, as a whole, full of moments of great pathos — a point amply made by Christopher Ricks in his excellent introduction to the Penguin Classic (which has now superseded by a newer edition with a different introduction entirely.)
It's the playful aspect of Tristram Shandy that seems to be of contemporary interest. Sterne was insistent on including such groundbreaking typography that the first edition is fascinating purely so you can relive the experience of readers of the 1760s when first faced with the legendary black page (in my edition the ink has graduated to the facing page, or "the grey page") and, the page that trumped even that "dark veil", the marbled page in Volume 3 ("motly emblem of my work!"). In my edition, this is spectacularly bright. Of course, every single marbled page in every hand-printed copy of Tristram Shandy is different, making every first edition of Tristram Shandy unique; doubly unique if you include the autograph. When you see the marbled page in the current Penguin Classic, nice gesture though it is, it becomes clear why some books are best experienced in their original state.
My favourite cover is The Ballad of Ragged Robyn by Oliver Onions, a remarkable novel that I hope one day to turn into some kind of epic Folk Opera. I recommend it far and wide in case anyone is interested: so far no takers, and I can't even find out who owns the copyright.
But among some of the most beautiful books are Edward Lear's, the author of many marvellous poems including The Owl and The Pussycat and (my personal favourite) "The Dong With The Luminous Nose". (His entire oeuvre is resolutely pre-Freudian.) Here is a lovely edition of More Nonsense with its gorgeous spine. To wind things up, I append one of its limericks . (Lear is said to have invented the limerick, though he never worked out, perhaps because he often read to children, who may well have enjoyed joining in on the last line, that the last line could be a punchline — generally, he repeats the first with one minor difference which disappoints modern readers.) Why this one? Is it particularly good? No, it's just a quite usual Lear limerick with an averagely fantastic Lear drawing. It just happens to be about "an old person of Pett/Who was partly consumed by regret" — and Pett is the precise village in England where I'm from and where my mother still lives in the house my grandfather built. Actually, they live in Guestling on Pett Road. But we're talking inches.
Edward Lear spent time there. He could also paint beautifully. This beautiful, mysterious landscape, Mahabalipooram, is in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Note: by complete coincidence, the excellent poet Matt Mauch won the copy of The Shrimp and the Anemone by L.P. Hartley. That book is in the
by Wesley Stace, February 9, 2011 9:53 AM
The book I should have bought but didn't was a Storm Jameson novel I can't remember which that contained the awesome authorial dedication: "To Tommy Another unnecessary novel! Storm Jameson." On my next trip to the bookshop, my mind made up, I returned full of hope but there was a book-sized space where it once had been.
Jameson wrote many, many novels, but the one I enjoyed most was Company Parade, a third of The Mirror in Darkness trilogy, the continuing story of Mary Hervey Russell, who seems to be more or less Jameson herself. My discovery of Jameson, whose novels are harsh, plainly written and psychologically acute, dates to a random email sent to me by an English professor who had read my second novel. He suggested I might enjoy Vera by Elizabeth von Arnim and The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns.
I did, a lot. It was at this point that my bookshelves gradually started to turn green
as though ivy was creeping over them.
There are about fifty more, but these ones actually happen to sit next to each other. Of these, Comyns's The Vet's Daughter is the greatest a brilliantly opaque study, narrated in some of the most perfect sentences imaginable, of an oppressed young working class woman who falls from indignity to indignity, yet somehow manages to rise above it all quite literally in the last chapter: one of the most hair-raising climaxes ever. I thought it was so good I actually sent a copy to Martin Amis(though now I can't quite remember the rationale behind this. Presumably I thought he might like it too.)
Almost as good is Who Was Changed & Who Was Dead (a title that listeners of my music might recognise), the story of a case of food poisoning that sweeps through a tiny British village. Comyns's later novels (including House of Dolls, about a brothel of septuagenarian prostitutes) should not be ignored either. They're all very slim, succinct and devastatingly witty in a way that makes the bons mots of Nancy Mitford (mentioned in the first of this week's worth of blogs) seem like froth. Comyns sent me on a Virago bender just at the same time as Jonathan Coe was publishing The Rain Before It Falls, a beautiful, modest novel, that finds its inspiration in this same world. Elizabeth Taylor's Palladian is another novel of quiet genius. All these were very influential on Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer in which although it is narrated, and indeed written, by a man I tried to capture some of their quiet dignified power. (I hate even to bunch them together, since they're all so exceptional, but they are, at least, all "bottle green", as Coe once described the Virago spine.)
It's not a stretch to talk about J.R. Ackerley. The New York Public Library recently asked me, for an anniversary edition, to pose for a photograph next to one of the many manuscripts in their possession. There was Dickens, of course; and I nearly went for Wilkie Collins. I could easily have picked Nabokov's Pale Fire, but assumed it would have gone already. Browning, Shelley, Wordsworth I mean, where do you start? So, in the end, I picked My Dog Tulip by J. R. Ackerley, of which I own a mere first edition. This is not only the best book ever written about dogs (with apologies to 101 Dalmatians) but one of the best books about humans. The book is a slim and perfect 164 pages in the first edition; the MS, which I got to see yesterday morning and about which I am going to write, was 492 pages with an average of 300+ words on each page, so perhaps 150,000 words long: a horrible lesson for writers everywhere. On page 223 of the MS, there was a black and white picture of Ackerley's beloved dog Tulip (who was really called Queenie I believe that the name was changed so the book didn't seem so homosexual) with a moving caption that I can't quote for copyright reasons. (I'll try to iron that out before I write about the MS for publication.) I also recommend Ackerley's other books, the lone novel We Think The World Of You and two other memoirs Hindoo Holiday and My Father & Myself (in which he took his candor about sexuality to new heights: the book was published posthumously in 1968).
I lived with an Alsatian, or German Shepherd as you may call them the British changed the name of almost everything German just before the first world war, including its own royal family so I can vouch for the canine truth of My Dog Tulip, but the book is about much more than that: companionship, loneliness, and desire. It is also profoundly moving and, particularly in the scenes where Acklerley tries to mate Tulip, excruciatingly funny. It was as if, by talking about dogs, he could actually talk more plainly about humans.
There was an animated adaptation made last year featuring the vocal talents of Christopher Plummer and Lynn Redgrave, but I couldn't bring myself to see it. My Dog Tulip has been recently reissued by NYRB. My first edition, with its beautiful letterpress cover, came from the fine book dealer Anthony Sillem, who still goes to the trouble of making print catalogues of his books-for-sale, in Hastings, East Sussex. It cost the equivalent of
by Wesley Stace, February 8, 2011 1:07 PM
I've just written a novel in which the main character is a classical composer, by necessity a fictional one, called Charles Jessold.
Jessold finds himself not, you understand, due to the astounding quality of my novel, but purely because he now fictionally exists in a noble tradition of fictive composers. Alex Ross, author of the much-praised The Rest Is Noise (a study of the history of 20th Century music), has written brilliantly about the lineage of similarly non-existent composers. [You might need to become a member, but the original New Yorker article, and its sequel, are here and
here). There are deadly boring fictional composers (Jean-Christophe by Romain Rolland) and profoundly interesting ones (Mann's Adrian Leverkuhn in Doctor Faustus): all seem to follow in the footsteps of Proust's Vinteuil.
I set myself the task of trying to work out why these various composers succeeded or failed as fictional creations sometimes they fail because they are clearly a stand-in for the Writer/Artist, an idea more than an actual composing composer; some fail because their work is not believably described. My first favourite fictional composer was Kuhn (rather than Leverkuhn), the narrator of Gertrude by Hermann Hesse, an author we perhaps read mostly when we were teenagers. I urge you to read (or re-read) Gertrude. I found it so affecting that I gave Heinrich Muoth, the singer in Gertrude who marries the love of Kuhn's life, a guest appearance (along with Adrian Leverkuhn) at the premiere of Strauss' Salome in Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer — also in attendance at this premiere was Adolf Hitler. Sadly, he wasn't fictional at all, though whether he actually attended the premiere is a matter of debate: he told Strauss' son he borrowed money to do so.
One of my favourite recent fictional composers is Catherine McKenna in Bernard Mac Laverty's Grace Notes: the novel tells her story in two parts, with the second part first. It's hard to imagine the structure working until you read it; then it's hard to imagine the structure improved. But my favourite of all, and I thank Mr. Ross' article for suggesting him, is Gilbert Rosenbaum from Randell Jarrell's sensational (and only) novel Pictures from an Institution. Although nothing much happens, every sentence is a dark gem. Rosenbaum is probably the novel's most likable character (his music is described in supreme detail) and his saving grace is the fact that he might, just might, be a failure. I found a nice paperback of this at Bookhaven in Philadelphia for $3 well-priced, well-bound and it hasn't fallen apart yet. I already recycled my copy and passed it on to someone who will love it, so no photo of that. I have yet to find a reasonably priced first edition.
The book that set me off down this fictional composer path having seen a Werner Herzog documentary about the man in question was Carlo Gesualdo, Prince of Venosa: Musician and Murderer by Cecil Gray and Philip Heseltine, published in 1926. (Heseltine was himself a composer, working under the unlikely psuedonym of Peter Warlock.) Gesualdo himself was real, but his life seems fictional in the extreme. He murdered his wife and her lover &mdash adultery was just cause for uxoricide in those days, so he got away with it and went on to produce some bizarre, shockingly dissonant, extremely beautiful, music very much in advance of its time. Part II of Gray and Heseltine's beautiful book also provided me with a title for my new novel, although in Charles Jessold, Considered as a Murderer I tried to tease different implications from the title.
In a world where there are fictional composers, there must therefore be fictional critics. My non-existent critic, Leslie Shepherd, narrates Charles Jessold's story. I read a Stravinsky biography that was fascinating on the subject of his relationship with musical critics, and this made me want to write a novel with this co-dependent relationship at its centre. To say more than that would not be prudent (though I will add that my composer and critic are not gay.)
I read quite a few contemporary critics for background, while trying to keep Shepherd his own man he is very keen on furthering the cause of English music at a time when a) Britain's favourite composers were all German and b) we were just about to go to war with Germany and, of course believable. However, I then read The Music Monster by Charles Reid, the biography of James William Davison, a British 19th Century music critic. Once I read this shockingly good book, I realised that nothing I made up about my own critic could measure up to the hideous reality of Davison: he likened Chopin's music to that of a sickly schoolboy. Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet he dismissed as "rubbishy". Verdi's Rigoletto would "flicker and flare for a night or two, then die and be forgotten." "Wagner cannot write music" was his opinion, Tannhauser was "commonplace, lumbering and awkward,' and Lohengrin "an incoherent mass of rubbish". Liszt was "talentless funghi", Berlioz "a vulgar lunatic", and Schumann's music could "hardly be called music at all."
Davison, who regularly took bribes and considered Sterndale Bennet (me neither...) the greatest composer of the day, was lead musical critic of The Times, the main newspaper in Great Britain for 32 years. No-one even had the decency to make him up, so I can't see how my logical, fussy, ideological Leslie Shepherd could fail to appear realistic. Davison might possibly have belonged in this book, the wonderful cover of which, had I not squeezed it in here, might not have made it into this blog.
If anybody is in NYC or thereabouts on February 23rd, Alex Ross and I will be at Hunter College, talking about Jessold and the lineage of Fictional
by Wesley Stace, February 7, 2011 11:17 AM
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,