Monday, June 29, 2009

Lost Books Month: The Ladder of Rickety Rungs by T.C. O'Donnell

Well, the Accountant is healthy once again. And on to the next book. Before that goes down there are a couple of announcements to be made.

First, in a day or two I will be adding a new sidebar with links to some of the other places I write for online and in print. As of now this will only be The Phoenix (serving Phoenixville, PA) book reviews I do once a week. This way you can get even more of my wonderful opinions on literature. Ahem...

Secondly, I will continue to do a few more "Lost Books" past the monthly change. For the rest of July I may do a couple of random book reviews, or may just provide links to the Phoenix articles. Most likely I will take a couple of weeks off and start fresh in August with a new month/theme.

In this downtime I welcome any submissions or book recommendations.

So, now to the book at hand.

First by way of random introduction, I will tell you how I came upon this book. I found this children's book at a used book sale, held in the grimy bowels of a conservative Pennsylvanian newspaper. The sale was horrible. The selection was mediocre (Lee Iaccoca, Dan Brown, John Grisham, Nora Roberts, Passages et al), the weather was abysmal and the man running the sale was sloth. The eighty or so year-old woman assisting him did all the heavy lifting while he ate a bucket of KFC.

I was there to find books for the bookstore. I left, more or less, with this book alone.

I would happily do it over again.

The Ladder of Rickety Rungs by T.C. O'Donnell. Illustrated by Janet Laura Scott. Prefatory note by Padraic Colum. P.F. Volland Company. Chicago. 1923 (original publication date - due to the book's extreme scarcity I believe it was the only issue as well). Out-Of-Print. Buy (if you can find it) The Ladder of Rickety Rungs here and support the Devil's Accountant.

I have said that Mr. O'Donnell has added to the mythology of sleep and dream; no story teller can do any better than add to a mythology. That half hour that is so full of reverie, the half hour before bed-time that children have their best remembered dreams in, has become enriched by the journeyings and adventurings of those who from the Mountain of Glimp climbed up into the Moon upon THE LADDER OF RICKETY RUNGS."

-Padraic Colum, from his Prefatory Note

If the bold words of the noted poet, scholar and lead figure of what became known as the Celtic Revival are not to be taken at superficial value. O'Donnell's wonderfully imaginative fairy story is, in my estimation, one of the finest tales left unheard.

This is a children's book. It is not a gateway work, like Tolkien's The Hobbit and neither is it a true novel written for the young, like Kenneth Graham's masterpiece, The Wind In The Willows. The Ladder of Rickety Rungs belongs to older literatures, like the fairy tale and fable.

Published in the 1920's and beautifully illustrated in deco watercolors, the book draws upon much older stuff to tell its tale. Delighting in nonsense humor and invented onomatopoeia (Slumb as the name of King Blink's sleepy butler), the tale wastes no time on the explanation of how, but rather dwells upon questions of when and where.

The story, like all fairy tales, simply can't be bothered with worrying about how the two Folk (us people of the world are known as Folk) children are given special consideration by King Blink, lord of the Land of Nod (just past the Land of Dusk). Nor does O'Donnell's tale fret too much over the politics of the fairy people versus the shaodow people (who inhabit the Land of Dreams). No, in traditional fairy tale format, which Colum points out in his preface, the story merely seeks to charm and conjure scintillating colors and lurid situations.

The cover illustration you see above, is an image the ladder itself, connecting Mount Glimp with the Moon itself.

Scott's illustrations capture a certain "otherworldliness" by using archaic images, bright colors and larger than life creatures to populate the pages. The people of the Land of Nod are drawn with something like Japanese clothing and features and yet do not at all live in anything resembling Japanese houses, castles or palaces. The ships that cross the sea proudly display bright sails and almost Chinese designs, yet the ships themselves clearly resemble more Nordic lines and the warriors bourne upon them wear the mail armor and carry shields resembling Norman conquerors.

Most fairy stories require a notion of past times, whether as a time for the tale to occur or as a form of digression which the author uses to more fully develop the mythology behind the tale at hand. Thus is the case with tales King Blink tells to the two Folk children, Wandell and Sue. He tells them of the battles he fought against the aggressive Folk warlord, King Tyrant the First (leader of the Norman horde described above). He also tells them of how the world of Folk learned to sleep and in turn how dreams came to exist among them, two things that apparently were not always the case.

The Ladder of Rickety Rungs
is a simple tale, told well and with great imagination. There are many, many points of silly humor and fantastic imagery that should be available to parents and children alike. As the great Padraic Colum said, this is a tale that adds to a tradition of mythical lore, and that alone should warrant its place at bedside for generations past its own.

It is a great shame that a delightful tale is unavailable, especially when the "market" has trended towards imaginative tales for the last decade or so. This book is incredibly scarce and it ought to be in every kids section in the English speaking world.

I am away from my camera and scanner right now, but sometime this week I hope to put up a few of the illustrations so that you can see how marvelous they really are.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Lud Heat by Iain Sinclair

A few posts back I asked readers to join in the Lost Books Month cause and submit a piece on a lost book they knew of. One Christopher Schaeffer has risen to the challenge.

Doubly fortuitous that he should rise to the occasion during a week where I am going insane with my friend, the fever.

That aside, and with no further ado I give you Schaeffer's wonderful write up of British poet & filmmaker's lost book, Lud Heat, which is no longer in print in the U.S.

Christopher does a wonderful job describing what seems to be a very obscure work. I have not read Lud Heat, but after saving up my allowance (it is not inexpensively obtained in secondary markets) I will get my copy.

You can follow Schaeffer's witticisms on twitter by subscribing. His username is GhostOrBalloon.

The edition listed below is the current Birtish edition, which is issued with an additional collection, Suicide Bridge.

Lud Heat and Suicide Bridge by Iain Sinclair. Introduction by Michael Moorcock. Granta. 300 pages. ISBN. 1862072078. Used copies of Lud Heat are available here (though not cheap).

The way I see it, there are two distinct flavors of incomprehensibility in literature (well, of good incomprehensibility, that is.)—you have your prophecies of Blake and you have your Pound’s Cantos. In the former, the confusion comes from being plunged into a system of symbols and signs so thoroughly and so confidently fabricated that it’s like waking up on an alien planet—and what’s more, the verisimilitude is such that the entire mythology doesn’t feel fabricated, feels, in fact, almost terrifyingly self-sufficient. In the latter, the reverse is true: the author brings together such a dense thunderhead of cultural and aesthetic touch-stones that the reader feels emotionally obliterated by the sheer breadth and heteroglossic blitzkrieg of the piece, the existing world totally defamiliarized by the weight of itself. In both cases, the initial power of the experience stems from a sense of being ushered into a world contiguous but not continuous with our own—same steps, different language, for lack of a better metaphor.

Iain Sinclair refers back to both Blake and Pound in his ultra-allusive and deeply (I think) coded first major work, Lud Heat. A mixture of prose and poetry, standing on one side of either fiction or non-fiction and containing long rhapsodies on London geography, Stanley Brakhage and the sculptor/performance-artist B. Catling, it’s almost fiercely inaccessible, so perhaps it isn’t too surprising that it’s out of print in the U.S. However, the whole text is in some ways a love letter to inaccessibility, a paean to the old traditions of rituals and mystery cults lying just beneath England’s soil. Throughout the work, segments digging into the rich loam of pagan symbolism woven in feverish patterns from ancient church to 18th century Hawksmoor cathedral to modern corner-pub, are contrasted with passages about a group of groundskeepers, their lunch-conversations, hay-fevers, and nostalgias—tenders of the soil that the other half the book so ferociously turns over.

What sticks me the most whenever I revisit Lud Heat is the intensely heated paranoid conviction of the crypto-archaeological sections—as with Blake, or Pound, instability and rhapsody are so intrinsically knotted together that the reader’s only recourse is to enter fully into whatever game the author is playing. When Sinclair invites the reader down the rabbit hole, it’s impossible to resist, and difficult to shake the effect off. Here, discussing Brakhage’s camera-work, Sinclair demonstrates the sort of transition of the banal to the ritual that characterizes the text, a transformation at once deeply sinister and moving:

“The rituals are casual , conducted without sentiment, with an impersonal skill that is almost tender. We are seeing something old, but corrupted. Not performed in a sacred state of grace, to high purpose—it becomes, through Brakhage’s sacrifice, grace-filled. What price does he pay? There is the double risk of bearing witness to secret rites and the primitive fear of soul theft. These souls are mutilated and loose, scattered. They give off the poisoned light (heat) that translates impulse into image. We know about the photographs of fields that kill all insect life within that frame. We know of the concentration of a man putting all his attention and will down the tube at one moment in time. This cannot be a single-direction process. Something comes back up, is sucked, willing or unwilling, into the flat black box. The situation is volatile. The force field is purple with energy. We have reason enough for the light to quake and dance, Brakhage knows that he becoming the Cursed Man, the mystery breaker.”

There you have it, in a nutshell—the immediate earnestness granted to hoary cliché like the camera stealing souls, the delirious association of figurative energy with material results—the system in which Lud Heat exists denies any barrier between the physical and the metaphorical—the spring-time sniffles of a sculptor are trials of initiation, the pyramids and spheres of Hawksmoor’s architecture signals to Old Gods: “The building should be a Temple, an active place, a high metaphor. The buildings taken together, knotted across the city, yield a further word.” Sinclair’s universe of universal symbol-conspiracy is oppressive, claustrophobic, and awfully unsettling. At the same time, it exercises a kind of weird allure—even to the most skeptic and jaded reader, the unity of this kind of sinister, barely visible capital-S-System, this Pynchonian THEY, has a certain kind of “oh, so that explains it” appeal. I suppose this explains some of the appeal of Dan Brown’s novels, and sheds a little light on the obsessed editors of Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum. In an objective world that seems to symptomatically deny any kind of grand purpose to existing, there’s a sort of morbid comfort in imagining one, no matter how Lovecraftian. As Sinclair puts it:

The secret routines are uncovered at risk
& the point is
that the objective is nonsense
& the scientific approach a bitter farce
unless it is shot through with high occulting
fear & need & awe of mysteries (…)

Lud Heat feels longer than it’s 141 pages—it’s a packed, packed book. However, it’s one of those rare pieces that sticks to some primitive part of the brain, transforms, however, temporarily, the way the reader puts together the world outside the text. That most rare and miraculous feat of literature, you’d think, would be enough to earn it continued publication.

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Devil's Accountant Is Going Insane

Seriously folks, three straight days of 100-104 degree fever is taking its toll. Saw the doc, got some pills, hoping for the best.

In the meantime I am taking a break from the DA. Should have something up in a few days.

Or perhaps I will unwind faster than Bogart did under the grilling of Jose Ferrer. He's just too smooth, that Jose.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Eye Was Staring At Me From Its Perch On The Spoon - Lost Books Month: Words In Commotion by Tommaso Landolfi, Italian Inventor

“Gentlemen! I am the author of a short story entitled ‘The Walk,’ which heralds my equally short collection, Impossible Stories, published by the fellows over a Vallecchi Publishers.”

“So who cares!”

“A rude yet, we must admit, frank opinion. But hold on, gentlemen: either I am deceiving myself, or the matter in which I propose to engage you is, as the saying goes today, of general interest.”

“We hope you’re not deceiving yourself.”

“Judge for yourselves. So then, a number of obsolete or difficult words appear in this story.”

“Good for you, but why?”

“It will soon become clear.”

Tommaso Landolfi, from Personaphilogical Dramatic Conference With Implications

Today’s selection is as close as covering all the criteria of being a “lost” book as any other I will cover this month. This is because of a myriad of factors, not the least of which is the author’s reputation as being an elitist, or as Italo Calvino mentions in his foreword, a writer’s writer.

I think it is safe to say that if anyone can understand the misfortune of being dubbed a “writer’s writer” it would be Italo Calvino. Thus it is with great energy that Calvino defends Landolfi as being funny, accessible and unpretentious.

Back to that criteria though, before I wind up writing everything in the introduction.

There have been two English language translations of Landolfi’s short fiction. One of them, Gogol’s Wife and Other Stories (New Directions) is still in print. Many of the stories in the collection I list today are contained in the New Directions edition. Many are not though, and neither is the wonderful Introduction by Calvino.

Two novels have been translated as well. Both of them are out-of-print. Landolfi was also a brilliant translator and literary critic. His criticism, as well as his autobiographical writings, come to life as works of implied importance in Calvino’s introduction but implication is as far as they go. Alas, they are not and never were available to English language readers.

Do not look at my insistence on the translation of works as a form of laziness. I would like to learn the language of Baudelaire and Dante, but in the end I am limited by time, let alone the fact that I have yet to reach any sort of mastery with the English language. I think most readers identify with this situation.

Now to the matter at hand. The below image was ripped from an eBay listing. Google images did not have one of the 1986 trade paperback. Cue foreboding music.

Words In Commotion and Other Stories by Tommaso Landolfi. Introduction by Italo Calvino. Translated and Edited by Katherine Jason. Originally issued by Viking in 1986, the work is out-of-print. Buy Landolfi here and support the Devil's Accountant.

“Still, upon closer consideration, how could he induce her to manifest herself less exclusively, to lead her toward corporeality? The notary realized full well that in such a situation the only means at his disposal were psychic ones; so each time he was kissed, he began to concentrate, to project his will and energy, as if to force himself to intercept some of the illusive creature’s particles, her fluid or substance; all together, those particles should have added up to some sort of being. That was followed by another step which generally was intended to evoke and urge on the darkness. And whether this was indeed the right method or there were other reasons, before long he began to reap the fruits of his labors.”

-Tommaso Landolfi, The Kiss

It is cliché to “expect the unexpected” but that is the reader’s lot when confronted by a tale of Landolfi’s fashioning. Every tale has its twist, always for the worst, and once warped the story is designed to evoke feelings of dread, disgust and above all, mirth.

The adept reader will glean much from the titles of the original collections in which these stories were issued: Fantastic Stories, Obsessive Stories, Dialogues, Horrific Stories, Between Autobiography and Invention, Love and Nothingness, Little Treatises, and lastly, Words and Writing (as close as nonfiction as Landolfi comes in the English language).

Before we get to the meat, I'd like to offer up a single appetizer. Calvino, in his introduction, explains to us that Landolfi was an incessant gambler. Late nights going into early mornings were spent at casinos. He was there so often that Calvino, hoping to talk literature with the great man, would have to endure the long gambling sessions in order to capture a few literary riffs by Landolfi.

Appetites should now be sufficiently whetted.

Landolfi is most often compared to Kafka. The Italian Kafka, or some such appellation meant to inspire authorial brand-awareness falls terribly short. He is nothing at all like Kafka, whose stories were much more densely written and whose literary milieu was one of what I like to call situational implication. Even Kafka’s humor is inadvertently rendered, though intentionally placed.

In Landolfi’s case, it is a matter of brutality. He is unflinching in his dreadful machinations, leading the reader to almost walk hand in hand with him as he tells us dirty, impossible tales with a glint of sarcasm shining on every barbed joke. I suppose the connection between the two writers is the use of magical realism to provide existential situation versus a grand theme. As far as what I mean by grand theme, think Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children or Marquez’s One-Hundred Year’s Of Solitude.

The difference is elemental. On the timeline of literary development the fantastical situation precedes fantasy as theme. It is the difference between the brief didacticism of the fable and the lurid romance of the fantasy. Both contain magical or unreal situations (talking monkeys, impervious warriors and unnatural curses) but the fable stops there. A true work of fantasy (its precursors exist in western knight-errant romances and eastern divine epics) develops a fully rendered (or as fully as is possible) world beyond the moment of unreality.

It is thus that when you pick up a Harcourt edition of Calvino you will see the proclamation that he was, “One of the world’s foremost fabulists,” or something very close to that. His tales utilized the fantastic as situation, not theme. Thus it is with Landolfi.

So the shared connection, in my opinion, is one of both Kafka and Landolfi essentially being fabulists. Past that I am not willing to sign on.

Landolfi’s short stories have a certain horror genre or even science fiction feel to them. In the story Chicken Fate, Landolfi gives us two farmers whose roles are reversed with their livestock. The writer’s delivery of the tale is reminiscent of a Twilight Zone episode. The original episodes, mind you. Also he wrote these stories before that series came on the scene.

In fact Landolfi’s macabre and fantastic stories are truly groundbreaking. Taking a hint from the Russian imagination, his tales are yet more modern than the occasional piece of fantasy written by brooding Russian masters. Landolfi essentially predicts the need for suspension, or “lightness” as Calvino termed it in his Six Memos For The Next Millenium, in modern writing. Tomaso Landolfi doesn’t want to rub our hands with the ichor of modern predicaments, but instead grant us a cynic’s view from above. It provides the reader with both a necessary warning and a conveniently borrowed righteousness.

I highly recommend you pick up some Landolfi. Either in the New Directions edition here or at your local bookstore or the OOP edition with the Calvino introduction via ABE. His light style and precise prose will, if nothing else, allow for a fun and disturbing night or two.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Lost Books Month 2009 - The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Lainez

This week the DA offers to you a lost book that somewhat confounds the concepts of there being a publishing milieu. This complex, beautifully sordid work of sexual and historical fantasy contains many aspects that would lead one to think it very "publishable." Since my review is somewhat long today, I'll get to it.

I would love to see this book back in print. I recommend you take a look at it. At some point this month I would like to organize a contest rewarding the best letter to a publisher about this book (or one of the other titles this month) requesting its publication with a free copy of a OOP book. Details to follow. Now let's get to this tenderly twisted tale.

The Wandering Unicorn by Manuel Mujica Lainez. Foreword by Jorge Luis Borges. Translated by Mary Fitton. Published in Argentina in 1965. First English language edition published in Canada by Lester and Orpen Dennys Ltd. First U.S. edition issued by Taplinger. Used copies of The Wandering Unicorn available for sale on ABE books.

“When the true history of our literature – and not an apology for it – comes to be written, Manuel Mujica Lainez will at last be seen as a benefactor.”

—Jorge Luis Borges, from his Foreword to The Wandering Unicorn

As I begin to write this review of Lainez’s wonderful fantasy, I can’t help but feel I am doing someone else’s work. There is no reason in the current literary climate where South American authors, whether canonical like Borges or newly classic like Bolano, are highly in fashion that an author like Lainez goes down quietly into obscurity.

Add to this notion of fashion the presence of secret histories, magical artifacts and demonic lovers (aligning with the Dan Brown, post-Potter and vampire zeitgeists respectively) and publishers are truly are without excuses for this books status. Oh, and please forgive the term post-Potter.

I found this book at a large thrift store in Norristown, PA. When Wolfgang Books first opened we had a lot of inventory problems with used books. Basically we didn’t have enough. After a busy weekend sometimes we would be nearly cleaned out. In the chaos of our backroom there were boxes of “second stringers”, books that would be lugged out from the back only when the shelves and tables were getting bare. These books never sell. They were merely place-holders. You can only put so many Kay Gibbons titles out at a time. Same goes for Thomas Mann. Both unfortunate situations of their own.

To solve this problem we would sometimes make brief excursions to a couple of the larger thrift stores in the area, one of them being the above mentioned warehouse in Norristown. We would handpick the ones that fit the nature of our bookstore and leave the rest like so much chaff (think Lee Iacocca and Danielle Steele). Occasionally something valuable turned up. Sometimes, rarer still, a obscurity found its way into the light of consciousness.

The Accountant (third person is so very satisfying) credits Jorge Luis Borges with teaching him how to read. As a solidly blue-collar reader, I found in Borges a organic process of discovery, assimilation and reference that led to discovery once again. Borges taught me the invaluable lesson of taking things to their ends and recognizing the patterns that form throughout. Even when one of his fictitious books led me on a wild goose chase. 601st night indeed.

So it was with tremendous excitement that I pulled the tattered blue-jacketed book club edition of a completely unknown (to me at least) Argentinian writer that came with a glowing foreword by Borges. “The Wandering Unicorn is not a reconstruction of time past; it is like a glowing dream set in the past.” Those are strong words coming from potentially the most erudite writer of the last century (or any century for that matter). This is not a jacket blurb. This is Borges writing a foreword.

At work I quickly learned via our new book distributors that the book was unavailable and then through our rare book sales channels that it was relatively without resale value. This meant it probably had never seen much demand. No one was looking for it. Not that it mattered. It could have been worth a couple hundred dollars and I still would have kept it or at least read it before putting it out to market. So it was with continued excitement that I went home that night and plunged headlong into the bizarre, magical, psychologically dense novel that is The Wandering Unicorn.

Narrating this brilliant book is the work’s chief protagonist, the fairy Melusine. Don’t know Melusine? Look at the hybrid being on your next cup of Starbucks coffee. That is Melusine, the ancient and powerful matriarch of French nobility whose own vanity grants auspicious luck to any who use her form or pay tribute to her. Starbucks may want to just plaster her name on the cups these days. That shameful concoction known as the McCafe is gaining on their plot to control the world.

Economic opinions aside, Melusine tells her story from the long view. She is living amidst us today, diminished but present. In a sentimental mood Melusine sets out to both instruct and delight. In a wonderful moment of self-awareness, Lainez places his book in a high limbo, somewhere between postmodernism and the premodern fantasy of medieval courtly romances. Here, read for yourself.

As for denying the existence of fairies, good and bad, you have to be blind not to see them. They are everywhere, and naturally I have links of affection or dislike with all of them. The wealthy, spendthrift ones squander fortunes in Venice or Monte Carlo: fabulous, ageless women whose birthdays and incomes and origins nobody knows, putting charms on roulette wheels for the dubious pleasure of seeing the same number come up more often than it ought. There they sit, puffing smoke from long cigarette-holders, raking in the chips, and looking bored.

There are more descriptions of particular modern-day fairy habits yet. The fey live among us, according to Melusine, and they are as wanton and powerful as ever. We are lucky though, for Melusine is not stuck in her former world. Her perspective, she is proud to say, has been influenced by the works of Freud and Proust. She is a modern fairy, our narrator.

Her story takes us from her rebellion against her fairy mother and marriage to the Lusignan prince, soon to be king, Raimondo. This is the classic telling of the fairy story. It is changed though, by the addition of modern psychological insight and first person exposition. It is also just the beginning of the story.

Her love fails, as it does in the myth. Every Saturday she must hide from him, as she has been cursed by her mother to change into something half-human, half-dragon every Saturday. Raimondo is her one great love and it is an unbearable eternity she spends thinking of what might have been. He discovered her, in her true form with its draconic lower body, wings and unearthly presence. The curse becomes permanent and Melusine must always be monstrous in appearance.

That is the original story. The old fairy tale. Lainez would not leave it at that. Instead he takes Melusine all the way up to the time of the Crusades. It is there, in a manner updated yet clearly reminiscent of The Canterbury Tales, that a cast of characters are introduced to Melusine and in turn she begins to follow their fates, influencing things as she can. There is the young Aiol, destined to be a powerful night, whose heritage links him to her and Raimondo and yet whose comely looks remind her so much of her lost Raimondo that she falls into a powerful, sexual love for him. There is also Aiol’s father, a knight of great merit but little wealth. There is odd, gender bending sequences where Melusine takes the form of a young knight who befriends Aiol and travels with him.

The sexual tension in is unbelievably strange. Homosexual in implication, yet feminine in actuality, the female spirit lusts for young Aiol from within a male knight’s body. Was the author expressing something here? Methinks there could be a chance he was.

The book is wonderful and beyond complex. Despite it being firmly fixed in the somewhat dubious genre of historical fantasy, it is yet a fully realized modern narrative (with little to no allegory present), which questions love and lust from many different directions and possesses the postmodern self awareness to transcend being fantastical pastiche.

Manuel Mujica Lainez, fellow fantasists like Tolkien and Borges, writes without any sense of irony. These great writers of fantasy believe their tales. They sidestep the cheap parlor trick of allegory and instead meander headlong into grand existential and moralistic quandaries. Just as Tolkien demonstrates the destructive nature of power (particularly in the hands of foolish and proud kings), Lainez paints us portrait after portrait of the dark presence that characterizes every lost love and unreleased passion.

If you are a publisher and want a explanation more transparent, more commercially aware then here: Take one quarter serving of Calvino, mix with an eighth Sir Richard Burton, add another eighth Salman Rushdie, then finish with a heaping portion of Marquez. Season with Jane Austen and the Marquis de Sade in equal, but generous measure… Maybe go a little heavier on the de Sade. Gender bending and all.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

The Movie Is In Print - So Why Not The Book? David Storey's This Sporting Life

Richard Harris plays Frank (the name replaces Arthur from the book) with something like a Shatneresque moroseness. Still, the movie is enjoyable and worth checking out.

The first book this month suffers from one of the worst disconnects in the literary world. It is the fate of having been turned into a film and being replaced in popular culture by that film.

In this case both medias are barely available.

Sometimes it works in the opposite. A movie like To Kill A Mockingbird is without a doubt a classic, but it serves as footnote to the book. In the case of today's selection, David Storey's 1960 novel This Sporting Life we have a book that never quite caught on in the states, despite a substantial publication run (continuing to this day) in the UK.

The film was out-of-print for some time as well, only being recently reissued in the very successful Criterion Collection. Since that reissue, the 1963 Lindsay Anderson film has enjoyed a new following in the states and abroad.

So what about the book?

This Sporting Life by David Storey. First published 1960 by Longmans, Green in the UK. Out-Of-Print in the United States. Copies of This Sporting Life by David Storey are available through the previous link.

I couldn’t make her feel that wasn’t true. I was the big ape again, known and feared for its strength, frightened of showing a bit of soft feeling in case it might be weakness. I might like all these nods and waves and nervous twitches that my passage along the road created, but they were always some distance away. People wouldn’t act like that if they were close. I wanted a bit more than a wave. I wanted to have something there for good: I wasn’t going to be a footballer for ever. But I was an ape. Big, awe-inspiring, something interesting to see perform. No feelings. It’d always helped to have no feelings. So I had no feelings. I was paid to not have feelings. It paid me to have none. People looked at me as if I was an ape. Walking up the road like about without a cage. They liked to see me walking about like this, as if the fact I tried to act and behave like them added just the right touch the next time they saw me perform. ‘I saw Arthur Machin last week,’ they’d say, when they next saw me run on to the field, just the thing to make them stare in awe, and wonder if after all I might be like them. I might be human.

This Sporting Life is a tale of repressed emotions, self-destructive violence, economic depression in a mill town and rugby. It is a powerful book that evokes an atmosphere of desperation without falling into the pitfall of becoming a work of maudlin romanticism. This is a work of modernity, and is for its hero we have a classic example of the antihero (not the cliched superhero version used today).

One of the aspects most lacking in the film adaptation of Storey's novel is the internal dialogue of the protagonist, Arthur Machin. Machin is capable of immense self-awareness as well as psychological insight into his fellow man's motivations. Despite his intelligence and physical prowess, Machin is yet insecure with himself and often finds showing emotion difficult until so much is bottled up that he must express himself in passionate, sometimes violent outbursts.

His acerbic wit and constant sarcasm belie a very insecure individual. Art Machin is a powerfully built man with many prospects, not the least of which is his blossoming rugby career. He is however, intelligent enough to realize his key fault. He has difficulty expressing his emotions. He knows what he wants but lacks certainty to go about getting it. He is emotionally reserved to a point where his only outlet of communication is sarcasm, criticism and violence.

The "she" of the above quote is his landlady, Mrs. Hammond. A woman slightly older than Machin who has two children and whose husband died in a machine accident at the town's chief place of employment, the mill.

Arthur works at the very same mill, though because the mill's owners also own the Rugby team, Machin is given the easiest, least physically demanding jobs and paid very well. Despite being something of a star in his league and city, Arthur Machin must still work at the factory full-time. This is a portrait of a bleak, poor England still living in the aftermath of its imperial fall and the ravages of World War II.

If I were to compare this novel (and it was Storey's first by the way) to another I suppose I would have to mention Camus' The Stranger and then amend that the existential angst would have to be filtered through Jack London's social novels or Steinbeck's Cannery Row. There is a wonderful social component to this novel, in which descriptions of a waning "quaint old" England is confronting a newer, more dehumanized one where the days are full of work.

The character of Art Machin is constantly aware of the poverty and "smallness" of the average person's expectations. He finds himself a modern man, emerging amidst a people who are nervous of new things and a modern lifestyle. His unyielding but confused love for his landlady, Mrs. Hammond, is the defining struggle of the book. Despite his status and the availability of women, Machin tries desperately to hold on to his love for Mrs. Hammond. In many ways it is the most real thing in his life. She is to him his most essential thread connecting him to everyone. His size and status alienate him. This plain, poor woman and her two children are his best chance at normalcy.

The final observation I'll leave you with is one concerning Arthur Machin's intelligence. Art may be a brutish, emotional lout, but his keen intellect allows him many memorable moments of sarcastic dialogue. Storey weaves a complex yet very accessible story that includes many different ways of developing his characters. It can be the car and women driven discussion of star athletes at their favorite club or a carefully crafted expository passage on the rugby game at hand. The novel takes a likable but sometimes confounding man through the rise of his career to the fall of it. In between are a series of memorably stunted relationships.

Art Machin, like the ape he believes others see him as, just can't get to be comfortable around his fellow man.

Read it. Write Penguin Books (they hold the rights) about how you'd like to see it back in print. Far too good a book to be unavailable in the States.

Monday, June 1, 2009

June 2009 - Innaugural Lost Books Month?

Lost Books Month: Noble cause or fool's errand?

It is with the same spirit of defiance and conservation as Banned Books Week that I propose a new (and month long) movement of awareness. I am unaware if some such activist holiday exists already, and if it does please inform me. I have looked and found no such event. So with the assumption of the originality of this proposal let us begin.

I mentioned a month or so ago in the piece on Salvatore Quasimodo that in my days as a used bookseller I would take the time to pick up the occasional unknown book and give it a read. Sometimes the books would be terrible. And sometimes, actually more often than not, the books would be good if not great.

Few though are truly great. Even fewer of these “lost” books are relevant. The ratio of books in print versus those out-of-print is unbelievably lopsided. By 1950 (cite Schiffrin stat) x% of published works had lapsed copyrights and had entered the public domain. The public domain is a wonderful piece of populist law, allowing works with lapsed copyrights (and typically authors who have been dead for 70 years) to be published by anyone. It is however, in a capitalistic system, both an opportunity and problem for publishers.

Just ask Scribner’s about how it feels to lose Hemingway’s backlist in the near future.

That aside, I was heading towards the point that not all that is lost is worth saving. Thus there is a sincere need to separate the good from the mediocre or just plain bad. This is largely what we get from the great publishing efforts of firms like Hesperus Press, Archipelago Books, NYRB, and Mevlille House (among some others). These firms make a point to see lost, neglected or obscure titles more accessible to a larger audience.

Despite the heroic efforts of the publishers above, there is still a need (in my humble opinion) for more effort on the part of critics and writers to help in the process of preservation. Sure, it is not as sexy as reviewing the new Rushdie novel and it certainly isn’t as machismo laden as taking up arms against the Twilight series. It is however a declaration of sincere concern for the future of books. If you can save something from the past, then you will find it easier to promote works in the future. Again, my opinion.

So with that in mind I would like to challenge bloggers, writers and critics to give pause and highlight a “lost” book this month. Define “lost” as any neglected, out-of-print or un-translated work. Examples?

Neglected: Any work that does not possess the readership it deserves. It might be in print still, but is only so by a shoe-string.

Out-Of-Print: You get this one.

Un-translated: Tell us about any book in a language that is unavailable in another language. Is there somehow a Steinbeck novel unavailable in Japanese and you’d like to see it translated? How about a brilliant North African novel written in French, yet never translated into the English. Let alone all those Peruvian novellas without a home (I am assuming they exist).

I welcome any contributions this month. Please send me a title and write-up of a work people ought to know about. I’ll put them up. Personally, I will be posting five books, one each Monday and one on the third Thursday, so there will be plenty of room for more contributions.

Lit-Bloggers: Please join in. Feature one “lost” book this month and help get a movement going.

Readers: Buy and read one of these “lost” books. Then tell your friends about it. Or write publishers about how the book should be more widely available or simply made available.

Starting tomorrow I will begin with the first work. A book that is still available in the UK, though it is now out-of-print in the U.S. It has bee so for years, despite the reissue of the movie adaptation in the Criterion Collection. I hope that’s tease enough.