Karel Čapek, Letters from England
The eminent Czech writer (and poet, playwright, theatre producer, among other hats) Karel Čapek came to England for the first and last time in May 1924, and stayed for two months. Letters from England was written on the hoof, which partly accounts for its freshness. On the surface, Capek’s take on England is unguarded, guileless and full of laugh-out-loud surrealism and charm; but the surrealism has a plangent, existential undertow. What he admires most about England is “English turf,” and particularly the fact that people are free to walk across it. As he writes in Letters from England:
Perhaps that’s also why England has had so few revolutions in history: because Britons could always satisfy their instinct for freedom by a mere striding over meadows. Nor do I consider it impossible that Britain began to rule the waves because she saw something in them like a great lawn over which it was permitted to proceed wherever one pleased.
Malcolm Lowry, Ultramarine (not forgotten, but almost lost!)
This highly experimental coming-of-age novel follows the painful progress of Dana Hilliot, deck-boy aboard the SS Nawab (SS Oedipus Tyrannus in later editions), as he pines for the girl he has left behind and suffers the spiteful attentions of the crew. Ultramarine was almost lost for good when Lowry’s editor parked his open-top sports car outside the Chatto office with the manuscript in a briefcase on the back seat. When he returned the briefcase had gone. Thinking that Lowry must have a carbon copy, he went on his way and broke the news to the author on his return. To his horror, Lowry had no carbon, having tossed it away when the final draft was typed. Lowry was suicidal. He decided to do the rounds of his friends to wish them farewell before killing himself. Fortunately, visiting the old Cambridge crony who had typed the missing manuscript, he found that the carbon copy had been salvaged from the wastepaper basket into which he had tossed it, and he returned to London in triumph.
Marguerite Yourcenar, Memoirs of Hadrian
This epic novel was first published in France in 1951 and, as far as we know, has never been out of print since. The novel is written in the form of an extended letter from the Emperor Hadrian to his successor, Marcus Aurelius. “My dear Mark,” he writes, “Today I went to see my physician.” Having begun his letter with the simple intention of informing Mark that his illness is mortal, the letter develops from the written meditation of a sick man into a detailed account of his life, his travels, his achievements as emperor, and his views on pretty much everything. At the heart of the book lies his love for the beautiful Antinous, and his despair following the youth’s tragic death. The quality and directness of the writing throughout are breathtaking. (It comes as no surprise to learn that Yourcenar was the first woman ever to be elected to the Académie Française.) A book like this could have suffered irretrievable damage in translation, but Yourcenar’s friend and companion of many years, the American Grace Frick, produced a text of such superb quality that it is hard to believe the original was written in French. It is a demanding book: the text is dense, not a sentence lacks weight, not a word is wasted. It must be read with total concentration. But when one finally closes the book it is with both a sense of loss and the certainty that you have been in the hands of a writer of supreme integrity; that you have come as close to the character of the Emperor Hadrian as it is possible to get.
Marghanita Laski, Little Boy Lost
Little Boy Lost is the story of Hilary Wainwright, an English poet and intellectual who, having lost his Parisian wife and infant son in the Second World War, hears that the child may still be alive and returns to France afterwards in search of proof. Hilary considers France the most civilized country in the world. But the Paris he finds on his return in 1945 is a place of shattered buildings, makeshift bridges, dilapidated horse-drawn taxis, hotels without hot water, and cafés without butter and milk. He discovers Jean, a six-year-old boy who may or may not be his son, in an orphanage 50 miles out of Paris, and the delicately observed exchanges between man and boy arouse an aching compassion. First published in 1949 – and, thanks to Persephone, reprinted in 2002 – how such an accomplished and gripping novel as Little Boy Lost managed to achieve “neglected” status (the qualification for publication by Persephone) in the intervening 53 years is a mystery.
R. C. Hutchinson, Testament
This huge novel is set in Russia during the Bolshevik Revolution. A prefatory note by “R.C.H.” in Testament purports to explain that his book is based on a faithful adaptation, although with names changed, of a memoir given him in Paris by Captain Alexei Otraveskov. The vision in Testament is personal, from the ground up; there is no panorama, no sweep of history, and it gives a vivid sense of the sheer chaotic muddle of the revolution, and its dislocating and destructive terror. This is not a comfortable or indeed a comforting novel. However, its range and passionate vivacity are such that it should promote Hutchinson to the pantheon of British novelists of the twentieth century.
Daisy Ashford, The Young Visiters
On 30 May 1919, the Athenaeum published a review of a new novel. The reviewer was Katherine Mansfield; the novelist was a 39-year-old secretary called Daisy Ashford. The novel was The Young Visiters, summarized by Mansfield thus: “This is the story of Mr Salteena’s plan to become a real gentleman . . . of his unrequited love for the fair and flighty Ethel Monticue, of Bernard Clark’s dashing and successful wooing of Ethel, together with some very rich, costly pictures of High Socierty, a levie at Buckingham Palace, a description of the Compartments at the Crystale Palace occupied by Earls and Dukes, and a very surprising account of the goings on at the Gaierty Hotel.” The Young Visiters was published in 1919 but written in 1890, when its author was nine. It appeared with a preface by J. M. Barrie and with the manuscript’s many spelling mistakes faithfully reproduced. It is funny, moving, acutely observed, and brilliantly plotted, shifting between the parallel stories of Mr. Salteena’s education and Bernard and Ethel’s romance with breathtaking style and rapidity. Although her novel has remained in print, Ashford quite deliberately faded from view. She married, had four children, and never attempted to publish more than the occasional article again.
Alan Paton, Cry, the Beloved Country: A Story of Comfort in Desolation
Cry, the Beloved Country tells the story of a journey, both actual and metaphorical, taken by Kumalo, a humble village parson living near Carisbrooke in the hills of southern Natal, South Africa. Receiving a letter from a mission priest in Johannesburg, he learns that his much younger sister, Gertrude, needs his help. With no experience of the wider world, Kumalo undertakes the long and intimidating journey, not only to rescue Gertrude but also to seek out his lost son and his brother. Cry, the Beloved Country is a beautifully crafted book, and the apparent simplicity with which the novelist tells his tale manages to knit together love for a beautiful land, sorrow at its condition and a very tentative hope for its future.
We do not know, we do not know. We shall live from day to day, and put more locks on the doors, and get a fine fierce dog… and hold on to our handbags more tenaciously; and the beauty of the trees by night, and the raptures of lovers under the stars, these things we shall forgo… We shall be careful, and knock this off our lives, and knock that off our lives, and hedge ourselves about with safety and precaution. And our lives will shrink, but they shall be the lives of superior beings, and we shall live with fear, but at least it will not be a fear of the unknown.
Gerald Basil Edwards, The Book of Ebenezer LePage
The Book of Ebenezer Le Page is Edwards’s only book, published posthumously. On Edwards’s death, a friend sent the manuscript to Hamish Hamilton, where it was enthusiastically received. Ebenezer’s story, told in the first person, spans seven decades. Born on the island of Guernsey near the end of Queen Victoria’s reign, Ebenezer intends to become a quarryman until a tragic accident means he instead spends his long life quietly growing tomatoes in greenhouses and fishing in his small boat for his dinner. Ebenezer survives two world wars and after the second he watches with growing anger as his “whore of an island” transforms itself from an insular agricultural economy to an international one based on banking and tourism. Composed of small vignettes, finely and meticulously threaded, there is not a single incident, a single character, a single line or phrase that that does not ring with authenticity. His voice is as much a part of Guernsey as the sea-battered rocks.
P.Y. Betts, People Who Say Goodbye
P. Y. Betts was one of those mysteriously disappearing authors, successful early on as a short story writer and contributor to Graham Greene’s prestigious but short-lived magazine Night and Day, which was scuppered by a libel suit in 1937. In the 1930s she also published French Polish, a funny and sharply observed novel about a girls’ finishing school. She was then heard of no more until, 50 years later, the writer Christopher Hawtree came across her name in the British Library and ran her to ground, living contentedly alone on a remote smallholding in Wales. Encouraged by a publisher, she took up her pen again and produced this irresistibly funny yet poignant memoir.
A Forgotten Literary Companion: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable
Imagine if you will that the Internet has broken down, that your browser’s no longer working… that, the whole world-spanning web has simply vanished, ceased to be, been switched off. On such an occasion, this uniquely curious lucky dip of a book – part anthology of proverbs, part almanac, part Classical dictionary, part trivia – would win out over Wikipedia and the inexhaustible library of the Internet. In Dr. Brewer’s treasure trove of language and human history you’ll find such gems as: “bow-window in Front”: “a big belly”; ‘to skylark about”: “to amuse oneself in a frolicsome way, jump around and be merry, indulge in mild horseplay.” Another entry reads:
Runcible Hat, Spoon – In Edward Lear’s “How Pleasant to Know Mr Lear” there is mention of a runcible hat and in “The Owl and the Pussycat” a runcible spoon.
It’s like a fine Sunday walk or a rambling conversation with an old friend: that is to say, it’s familiar in a warm way, may not teach you anything you didn’t know, but might remind you of some things you’d forgotten.
Curated by Slightly Foxed, with thanks to our contributors.