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 $18.