150+ essays on literary topics
Three old Penguin paperbacks, bought from my local Oxfam bookshop, have given me a lot of reading pleasure in the last few weeks. The first was A High Wind in Jamaica by Richard Hughes, one of those books that I had never got round to reading, though I had known that I should since I was a schoolboy. It was first published in 1929 and is still in print. My Penguin, published in 1949, was its first appearance in paperback. It is about some children who are captured by pirates, which puts it in a tradition going back to Robert Louis Stevenson (if not further to Longus and Daphnis and Chloe) and on to William Golding. What happens to Golding’s children on their island happens to Hughes’s children in the more or less indifferent company of their more or less good-natured captors.
Hughes wrote books for children as well as grown-ups and the fact that this one is about children has led to some confusion (as it always does in England) about who it is for. It was written for grown-ups but one of the interesting things about it is the narrator’s voice, which sounds like an echo of the voice of a children’s author from the early years of the last century, E.Nesbit, for example, or perhaps just Hughes himself. It is a voice which is not only unafraid of making ex cathedra pronouncements but actually relishes them, as one of the great pleasures of being an omniscient narrator. Earlier writers of what is usually called the English Novel took full advantage of their omniscience with moral commentaries or ironic observations on the characters and their actions. Henry Fielding, Tobias Smollett, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot and so on down to H.G.Wells and E.M.Forster, all did it in their own way. Modern authors tend to avoid it, assuming an air of detachment which is, given the nature of their involvement in the book, somewhat disingenuous. You can date a novel by such sentences as that with which Hughes begins Chapter 5: ‘When Destiny knocks the first nail in the coffin of a tyrant, it is seldom long before she knocks the last.’ Or this from Chapter 6: ‘Grown-ups embark on a life of deception with considerable misgiving, and generally fail. But not so children. A child can hide the most appalling secret without the least effort, and is practically secure against detection.’ That, in a nutshell, is what the book is about, and a very good book it is too.
The second was Odd Man Out by F.L.Green, for which there was an advertisement on the inside back cover of A High Wind in Jamaica. I had heard of neither the book nor its author but, reading the opinion of one reviewer that, ‘no more important novel, both for itself and what it promises, has appeared for many years,’ I went back to the Oxfam bookshop and bought it.
It was first published in 1945, by Michael Joseph, and appeared in Penguin in 1948. It begins with an attempt by the leader of a terrorist organisation to steal money to buy weapons. A moment’s hesitation during the get-away results in the leader killing one of his pursuers and being seriously wounded himself. His three accomplices escape but he is left behind. The rest of the book falls into two parts, one dealing with the accomplices and their attempts to find and rescue their leader, the other with the leader’s efforts to save himself. The setting is Belfast and the terrorist organisation, though it is referred to only as the Organisation, is the IRA. But the novel is not about politics, except in the most general sense, but about individual responses to a human situation. The narrative voice here is anonymous, but the author’s presence is felt throughout in the gradual elevation of individual characters to participants in a human drama, an elevation so gradual and unobtrusive that it is only in retrospect that you begin to see something of the quality of Greek tragedy in what you have been reading. Human weakness, chance, destiny, courage, conviction, death. The policeman, the priest, the friend, the enemy, the lover. Perhaps that is why, in spite of its subject being something that has been in the news every day for at least fifty years, the book has been forgotten.
Reading on the back cover that the book had been made into a film, I bought that too. It was directed by Carol Reed, with James Mason in the lead role, and is regarded as a classic of British film noir. It is in fact very faithful to the book, with screenplay by Green himself and R.C.Sherriff, a playwright best known for his First World War play, Journey’s End. Both book and film were very successful in their day and are now all but forgotten. All of Green’s books are out of print. Ironically, the inside cover of my copy of the Penguin edition carries an announcement of ‘A New Venture’ to counteract the problem of shortages of labour and materials in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. Penguin Books lament ‘the fact that many famous modern books have gone out of print’ and announce their intention, in partnership with other publishers, to put that right with a new series of paperback editions of books by authors such as Joyce Cary, Somerset Maugham, Aldous Huxley and others, including F.L.Green. How sad that all we have of him now is those same paperbacks. The books are out of print again and it’s the second-hand book trade, not the publishers, that we must turn to if we want to read them.
The third was Sea and Sardinia by D.H.Lawrence, first published in the USA (Thomas Seltzer, 1921), published by Penguin in 1944 in their Travel and Adventure series. It is an account of travels by train and sea with his wife Frieda, referred to throughout as ‘the q-b’ after her initial appearance on page 9 as ‘the queen bee’. The best and worst of Lawrence is here, though it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between them. A mannerism that irritates on one page enchants on another. Like many English authors who have written about their experiences abroad, he spends a lot of time complaining. R.L.Stevenson does it in Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, Dickens does it in all his travel writing, Sterne does it in A Sentimental Journey. But all that shows is that writers are no different from anyone else. Fortunately, there is plenty to show us that Lawrence can write on occasions better than most. Opening the book and taking a paragraph at random: ‘A ragged and dirty girl was nursing a fat and moist and immovable baby and tending to a grimy, fat infant boy. She stood a yard away and gazed at us as one would gaze at a pig one was going to buy. She came nearer, and examined the q-b. I had my big hat down over my eyes. But no, she had taken her seat at my side, and poked her face right under my hat brim, so that her tousled hair touched me, and I thought she would kiss me. But again no. With her breath on my cheek she only gazed on my face as if it were a wax mystery. I got up hastily. Too much for me, said I to the q-b.’
My next Reader’s Diary will be published on 4 June.
My next essay, on 28 May, will be about Historical fiction.