Friday, 27 February 2009


I'm off to Toulouse next week, so there will be a longer gap than usual between posts.  The process of preparing for a holiday, as ever, invokes the delicious dilemma of deciding which books to take, and the usual weighing of book space (as long as I hold out against the Kindle, Sony E-Book and Google Telepathy Electrodes) against that which might be used for relatively trivial items, such as clothes and shoes.

I'm taking Labyrinth, which I haven't read, order to enjoy it in an appropriate setting (particularly as a trip to Albi is planned) plus a few (wait for it) Capuchin Classics, but I'm also determined to plug some of the yawning chasms in my knowledge of those books considered as eternal landmarks of quality and meaning.  I finally read Paradise Lost during a recent holiday, and found that the time and mental peace occasioned by a break from work allowed me to absorb the book thoroughly and with great relish.  Perhaps it's about time (although I have read it before) to do the same with The Wasteland.

I ought to take something of French origin, and this will probably be Georges Perec's insane experiment of writing a novel without the letter 'e' (a feat, of course, matched by his translator) The Void.

As usual, I'll post my reactions on the wonderful Goodreads website.

Quotation of the day:
"Some books are undeservedly forgotten; none are undeservedly remembered."  W.H. Auden

A bientot.


Tuesday, 24 February 2009


In speaking to a friend over the weekend about renewing our cycling habit, I was reminded about some of my favourite books that feature - as the French elegantly have it - la petite reine.  In best Oscar fashion, this is my list of award winners.

The obvious winner of Best Book, given that it's the greatest novel ever written*, is Flann O'Brien's profoundly lunatic The Third Policeman.  This book features, among other attractions, people turning into bicycles (and vice versa); blundering policemen with the ultimate cosmic power at their disposal and a biography of a fictitious inventor (one of whose projects is an attempt to dilute water) the footnotes to which gradually grow to overcome the text.  I've read this work of genius many times, and have never tired of its disturbing brilliance.

In the Charmingly Whimsical (But not Without Genuine Pathos and Wit) category, step forward The Wheels of Chance, H.G. Wells' comic turn starring a London draper for whom a cycling holiday offers a temporary escape into an English rural idyll and the tantalising possibility of a daring romance.  An effortless and wonderful dissection of class, manners and psychology, and a very good reflection of how the bicycle transformed life for the low to middling British person.

Finally, in the Book Which is Less Well-Known but Arguably Better than its More Famous Counterpart category, we have, making a diffident but humorous acceptance speech, Three Men on The Bummell, by Jerome K. Jerome.  This novel features the familiar protagonists from the boating excursion taking to the pedals on a European tour and boasts, among other hilarious set pieces, a scene in which a fanatical but dazzlingly inept cycle maintenance enthusiast persuades the narrator to 'tune up' his bicycle to the extent that it ends up lying in irreconcilable pieces across his yard.

To round off the show, here comes the slightly contrived Capuchin link, to George Bernard Shaw, one of a group of left-leaning thinkers and writers who embraced the bicycle as a tool of social liberation.  GBS, of course, wrote the boxing novel Cashel Byron's Profession, which we are reissuing later this year.

Quotation of the day
"Is it about a bicycle?".  From The Third Policeman.


*This is simply an a priori universal condition of truth, and I will enter into no disputatious colloquy regarding the contra-substantiation thereof whatsoever.  

Wednesday, 18 February 2009


Today I am very pleased to hand over the Blog to Craig Nova, author of Incandescence, which we are reissuing in July.  Craig offers some thoughts on politics in literature.

The Novelist in the Political Age

In the current age, when passions are so keen and when distortions are so omni-present, it is a good idea to remember that there is a difference, and a profound one, between a novelist and a propagandist.  Where the novelist’s work is concerned, politics corrupt, and an absolute concern with politics corrupts absolutely.  

Political content fails in a novel for three reasons.   The first is that the novelist is almost always concerned with those aspects of humanity that differ from what we expect people to be.   Perhaps it is best to think of this inside out, or in its most extreme opposite form.   Socialist Realism was a good example of the foolishness of writing novels that are concerned with “political truths” as opposed to actual ones.  This, of course, was a reflection of the Soviet notion that a writer, just like any other worker, was there to do strictly utilitarian work, and that meant glorifying the state.   In practice this meant accounts of Worker X in Shoe Plant T-24, who had met her quota for the month with an almost orgasmic satisfaction.  Now, in this case a novelist (as opposed to the propagandist) would be more interested in her fury at being confined by rules and regulations, her secret temptations to commit sabotage, her meeting with her boyfriend in the glue room, or, perhaps, her lesbian affair that, if it came out, could get her sent to nut house.   And, of course, these and other such activities are precisely what the Socialist Realist writer was forbidden to include.

The right wing version of this, I hasten to add, is not so much the production of works that glorify a state, but the suppression of works that are found politically unacceptable.  

Now, Socialist Realism is an extreme example, but the inherent contradictions in it (that is, not writing about what it is really like to be human) plays into the next reason that political content fails in a novel. In most political visions, there are good guys and bad guys, and that is that.   The political vision is not interested in doubt or complexity and the intricate workings of an interior life.  One’s political opponents are always cynical manipulators and one’s political heroes are always driven by mystical purity.   To say that this is dull is to put it mildly.  The corrupting aspect of political content in a novel is this:  sooner or later there will be a conflict between what the political belief demands and what the novelist knows about the human heart.

The next reason that such novels fail is that the political vision is not interested in humor.  While it is true that political figures are funny now and then, they are rarely aware of it.  Humor, by the way, almost always has to do with a delight in surprises, and this is another item that the political vision abhors: there are no surprises in political beliefs.  If you have problem A, then the solution is to do B + C + D.   Humor and unintended consequences are not even on the radar screen.  And yet, if you are interested in what it is really like to be human, these items are absolutely essential.

In fact, a good novel investigates those aspects of being human that are filled with surprises, just as such a book explores the tragic aspect of life, and there is no place in politics for the tragic: we can not say, politically, that there are some things we can do nothing about.  

This sounds like a pretty thorough condemnation of the novel, and, as a novelist, I would be horrified if that is all there was to it.   But looking at “the lower layer,” as Melville called it, I think there is another aspect which compensates for all of this.   A first rate novelist will explore the moral impulse that is at the heart of facing up to any issue.  Albert Camus, for instance, was profoundly concerned with politics, but his books are investigations into the facts of the human condition.   We live.  We die.  And we are all in the same boat.  So what are our obligations to one another?  It is this aspect of the novel that redeems, and, in a profound way, makes it critical to the modern age, since a novelist worth anything is interested in what it is like to be human and how we know right from wrong.  It is this knowledge that drives not only our personal lives, but our political ones, too. 

Craig Nova

Quotation of the day

"By definition a government has no conscience. Sometimes it has a policy, but nothing more." Albert Camus. 

Tuesday, 17 February 2009


My literary taste buds are currently being tickled by the delightful thing that is Mr Perrin and Mr Trail, by Hugh Walpole, which Capuchin Classics published in January.  This amusing, carefully-observed story of the rivalry between two public school masters, is also layered with dark pathos, but is never sentimental. The story particularly well contrasts the trammelled and (physically and emotionally) confined lives and rituals of the school employees and their families, with the wild Cornish coastal landscape which surrounds them.  Another tremendous feature of the book is the way in which Walpole describes how the human soul is steadily pecked away at by the harpies of apparently trivial everyday irritations and frustrations.

I'm being reminded, as I read the book, of other literature which depicts the school world.  One of my favourite examples is the wonderfully baroque and bloated world of Gormenghast, by the absurdly talented and under-known Mervyn Peake.  Peake's staffroom, wreathed in toxic smoke, writhes with grotesque characters and their equally repellent characteristics. At the other extreme, the Molesworth books made brilliant, surreal and affectionate mock of the English public school system in the 1950's and practically created their own language in the process.

Molesworth famously described one school dinner as 

"The piece of cod which passeth understanding" 

and Walpole has this counterpart:

 "He had been brought a small red tomato and a hard, rocky wedge of bacon with little white eyes in it, and an iron determination to hold out at all costs, whatever the consumer's appetite"

There is a whole sub-category of writing about school food, I suppose.  Scope for an anthology? Called the Inedible Journey?  Sorry.

Quotation of the day
"Grown ups are what's left when skool is finished."  Molesworth.

Sunday, 15 February 2009


I've just finished reading Restless by William Boyd, which I found to be an intelligently and highly credibly written spy thriller, with strong and well rounded characters. My wife agreed, thus ushering this work into a very select pantheon of books which have solicited matrimonially mutual pleasure.

One section of the book describes how the female narrator, conscious of an intense but unstated romantic attraction between her and a male colleague, applies a strategy she learned from a female acquaintance in order to inspire the male to kiss her, namely "'Just stand close to a man', the woman had said, 'very close, as close as you can without touching - he will kiss you in one minute or two. It's inevitable'".

This (successful) advice reminded me of a Fay Weldon short story I read many years ago, in which a woman seduces a man she knows is attracted to her by brushing her breast against his arm as she walks by him. This again is touted as an infallible device by the narrator.

All this raises some interesting questions: are men so easily and predictably directed?; is there a secret book, possibly begun at the dawn of time and copied and distributed to women around the world containing these and other devious manouevres (and if so, how did Mr. Boyd gain access to it?); (and also if so, what else is in it?).

Answers on a postcard, or by clicking the Comments tab, welcome.

Quotation of the day
"'He had a dream' I says 'and it shot him.'
'Singular dream.' he says." Mark Twain, from Huckleberry Finn.

Wednesday, 11 February 2009


One of the civilised but fiercely argued debates we occasionally have at the Capuchin office is over the respective literary merits of books that are graced with the 'Classics' label.  A particular bone of contention between two of my colleagues (let's call them 'Max' and 'Christopher - and why not, as those are indeed their names) is whether, in terms of literary merit, Frankenstein wins out over Dracula.  Is it too obvious of me to point out that this conversation was originally inspired by Capuchin producing its own edition of Dracula?

There are many perspectives through which to look at this question: meaning and content, literary style, originality, and influence being perhaps the most obvious.  Moreover, the influence is not only of a literary nature but also on culture in general, with films, t.v. series (Buffy, Twilight) and language ('I have created a monster') all still rippling with the impact of these books.

On a more trivial note (it doesn't usually take long for me to dismount from the platform of lofty analysis) I began to wonder who would prevail in a physical contest between Frankie and The Count.  The imaginary pitting of one creature against another is now a cultural staple, to which literature should not be excluded from contributing.  Much for me seems to hinge on the relative speed and stamina of vampires, which I don't think this particular adversary could match.  On the other hand, does Frankenstein have any blood, and if not, what would be the consequences of Dracula attempting to grab a mouthful?  Of course, he might have the advantage of having read 'Frankenstein'.  And what of other possible matches?  Grendel versus Tarzan, for instance, or King Arthur duelling with D'Artagnan.

Your contributions welcome.

Quotation of the Day
"A king is always a king - and a woman always a woman: his authority and her sex ever stand between them and rational converse." Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.


Monday, 9 February 2009


I enjoyed a day off work today and this coincided with the first snow-free day in my home town of Hitchin for some time. The combination of bemusement, caution and relief, as my fellow citizens and I gingerly trod on the remaining slush and with exhiliration strode blithely across the patches of tarmac that had become visible again, reminded me of the many post-apocalyptic novels, films and t.v. series I have consumed, wherein the survivors of plague/invasion/war (delete where applicable) lurch with the weary elation of survival into the task of building the world again. Then again my imagination is a little fevered.

Nonetheless, I felt this was all the pretext I needed to list some of my favourite work in this genre, namely:

The Death of Grass - John Christopher. Typically elegant and imaginative (and now relatively neglected) outing from the 'Tripods' author.

The 'Plague' trilogy - Jean Ure. Extraordinary tour de force, especially the choice of themes for a children's series, which tackles the social, personal and religious dimensions of biological apocalypse.

Riddley Walker - Russell Hoban. The Ulysses of the genre, in which language and culture have decayed and evolved into forms the understanding of which provides the reader with a highly stimulating and complex puzzle.

Cat's Cradle - Kurt Vonnegut. I'm cheating here, as this is an apocalypse without a 'post', but I had to get him in somewhere. A playful but as always profoundly wise romp through family, religion and science. Galapagos is a more authentic choice.

Actually, another link would have been to say that these are some books in which it is hard to keep alive (see our motto, gentle reader).

One or two citizens have, however, begun to spread dark rumours that the mysterious white cloud is returning. We look to the skies and pray....

Quotation of the day 
"Life is no way to treat an animal." Kurt Vonnegut (no relation to Capuchin Classics).


Sunday, 8 February 2009


My wife and I entertained her brother and his wife this weekend, and during Sunday breakfast the topic of electronic book readers emerged. The brother-in-law, who is neither slow nor unenthusiastic when it comes to embracing new technology, could not see himself becoming a convert, partly because of the difficulties and hazards that might be involved in reading from such a device while in the bath, which for him is an essential benchmark any information platform must reach. Another objection he raised stems from the fact that he enjoys a very tactile - albeit somewhat severe - relationship with his paperbacks, which, like the bucking broncos of Wild West legend - have first to be tamed by (and here I trust the analogy does not transfer) having their spines broken and being trained to lie absolutely flat on a nearby surface. This is so that he can read them without the use of his hands other than to turn the pages, his hands often being simultaneously required for other tasks, the brother-in-law being a dizzyingly busy and productive individual.

This brought us on to the discovery that he has recently - due to the fiscal belt-tightening necessitated by about seven people in the world becoming insanely rich while running banks very badly - returned to using his local library, a pleasure which I, for much the same reason, also restored to my life a few weeks ago. We created a touching moment over the bacon, eggs and beans by sharing our wide-eyed wonder in the renewed realisation that one could walk into a building full equally of books and very nice, knowledgable people and walk away clutching an armful of literature of many varieties at absolutely no cost. Our only regret was that we had banished this readily available magic from our lives for so many years, lulled away by bookshops with their alluring, shapely dumpbins and gaudily made-up books surrendering themselves to us cheaply or for free. The brother-in-law observed that he had seen an advertisement in his library wittily promising "Buy none, get 8 free".

I must emphasise that the missing link between the first and the second topics was my sister-in-law observing that a rather different handling regime would have to prevail with those books belonging to the local authority.

It is now frequently reported that the death of the book has been frequently reported, and it will be interesting to observe how much and how quickly the e-reader is absorbed. I hope I'm not consigning myself to the luddite or old fogey departments when I predict that enough people will continue to find what has been castigated as the 'dead tree format' the most comfortable and pleasurable way to read, to enable the paper book to continue.

Quotation of the day
"No wise man ever wished to be younger". Jonathan Swift, author of Gulliver's Travels, to be published by Capuchin Classics in May, with a new introduction by Jeremy Paxman.


Friday, 6 February 2009


We had the honour of entertaining William Boyd for lunch yesterday, and a very pleasant and stimulating episode it turned out to be.  William has contributed a sparkling foreword to our edition of Incandesence, by Craig Nova.  All the Capuchin staff are particularly excited by this book, and hope it will help Craig achieve the increased recognition his literary brilliance deserves.  The foreword will be available to download from our website in due course, but here's a brief synopsis:

"Stargell had it all – a prestigious job at a think tank, a beautiful Greek wife and money enough to indulge his expensive tastes. Then one day he lost his job – for using the think tank’s computer to play the horses – and his life took a very definite turn for the worse. Suddenly he’s broke, his wife’s going crazy, and a very determined Lower East Side loan shark has his number."

The conversation over lunch ranged across many topics, the literary ones including the proposal that Ernest Hemingway's real genius lay in his short story writing and some interesting insights from William into the vexed question of men writing convincing female characters (we think he does, for the record).

However, the real revelation of the afternoon came when William was kind enough to slice a loaf of bread, and in doing so revealed an extraordinary ability to produce slices of uniform and ideal thickness with an elegant and enviable insouciance .  This leads me to wonder what non-writing talents are employed by other well-known literati. I know Philip Pullman is a keen carpenter, which seems appropriate given the beauty and craft of his novels, but it would be wonderful to discover some other activities that went against apparent type.  Do we know any macho thriller writers who are incurable flower-pressers?  Contributions welcome.

Quotation of the Day

"A fashion is nothing but an induced epidemic".   George Bernard Shaw, author of the Capuchin Classic Cashel Byron's Profession.


Thursday, 5 February 2009


We regret that, due to the continuing severe climatic conditions in cyberspace, and a failed blog which is blocking the line ahead, we are unable to bring you the Capuchin Classics blog today.   Capuchin Classics is very sorry about this situation, and is doing all it can to rectify the matter, but the unprecedented falls of virtual snow, and subsequent meta-icing, mean that our resources have been stretched beyond their normal limits, and our supplies of digital salt to apply to the Superhighway are running critically low.

We apologise for the cultural inconvenience this will cause, and hope to have resumed a normal service later today.  Please telephone National Blog Enquiries, whereupon, after accumulating a ruinous charge and being played a fiendish combination of ghastly muzak and cretinous, banal recorded announcements advertising unwanted options, you will have no useful information conveyed to you.

Thanks for travelling with Capuchin Classics.

Quotation of the day

"Climate helps to shape the character of peoples, certainly no people more than the English. The uncertainty of their climate has helped to make the English, a long-suffering, phlegmatic, patient people rather insensitive to surprise, stoical against storms,. slightly incredulous at every appearance of the sun, touched by the lyrical gratitude of someone who expects nothing and suddenly receives more than he dreamed." H.E. Bates, author of Love in a Wych Elm and other Stories.


Wednesday, 4 February 2009


This is probably old news (and therefore not news) to many of you, but I've recently discovered Goodreads.  This is a wonderful site which allows users to - among other things - log their own reading, compare instantly their opinions of books with those of other users and join special interest communities and discussion groups.  The site is very well designed in terms of both functionality and aesthetics, and is free to use.

For someone like myself with a poor memory, Goodreads is an ideal way to remind myself of what I've read and what I thought of it, as well as being a route to the discovery of other people's books and reading habits, which can provide a wealth of suggestions for future reading.

If you decide to swell the site's ranks, do look me up and extend an invitation of friendship, (I exist there under my real name, David Birkett) if you're so inclined.

Quotation of the day

"Idealism increases in direct proportion to one's distance from the problem." John Galsworthy, author of the The Dark Flower, BBC Radio 4's Book at Bedtime over December and January, published by Capuchin Classics.


Tuesday, 3 February 2009


Writing on the snow

The current climatic challenge provides an opportunity to remember some favourite literature which has a snowy theme.  I thought of poetry first of all, hence the title of this blog, and especially of a poem by Louis MacNeice, who I think is far less celebrated than he deserves.    


The room was suddenly rich and the great bay-window was
Spawning snow and pink roses against it
Soundlessly collateral and incompatible:
World is suddener than we fancy it.

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural, I peel and portion 
A tangerine and spit the pips and feel
The drunkenness of things being various.

And the fire flames with a bubbling sound for world
Is more spiteful and gay than one supposes -
On the tongue on the eyes on the ears in the palms of one's hands -
There is more than glass between the snow and the huge roses.

As with all the best MacNeice, there is an easy movement between the concrete and
the meditative, there is a wonderful sense of rhythm and form and there
are phrases which lodge in the mind as perfect encapsulations of a moment or idea.

It feels appropriate to champion MacNeice in a Capuchin blog, as our imprint is dedicated to keeping 
alive unjustly neglected great writing, and, through the slush of inconvenience and delay,
I'm glad I was reminded of this poem and this writer.

Quotation of the Day

"A good novel tells us the truth about its hero; but a bad novel tells us the truth about its author." G.K. Chesterton, author of the Capuchin Classics The Napoleon of Notting Hill and The Incredulity of Father Brown.


Monday, 2 February 2009

Blog relaunch and introduction

Dear readers -

I'm David Birkett, and I joined the Capuchin team recently in a Sales and Marketing role, and thus inherited the blogging mantle. My intention is to add a blog each day, which will reflect some aspect of the book world, be it specifically related to titles or activities at Capuchin or otherwise.

New arrivals

Bouncing into the Capuchin maternity suite recently came four new children, each bearing the healthy green, white and black pallor of their sixteen siblings. We have (very much non-identical) short story twins - H.E. Bates' Love in a Wych Elm & other Stories and Leo Tolstoy's Tales of Sexual Desire. These are, respectively, explorations of rural England and the darker landscape of violent sexual desire. Hugh Walpole's Mr. Perrin and Mr. Traill exemplifies the fine British tradition of powerful writing about public school life and culture, while Charles Morgan's The Voyage, set in the Charente region of France, beautifully describes one man's quest for love. Stylistic and geographical contrast are on offer in this newest batch of books which we are proud to add to the Capuchin family. Our Capuchin Classics website has full details of these books, our previously published list and some forthcoming titles.

Publishing Cliche #24

It is indeed a small world. Readers of the delightful Alma Books blog will know that we had the pleasure of lunching Alma's co-founder Alessandro Gallenzi recently. Alessandro's description of that event made reference to my colleague Max Scott resembling Hugh Grant and speaking in an unintelligibly refined accent. We would like to state for the record that not only is Max's diction a model of clarity and intelligibility, but that he's much better looking than the Grant chappie. Our conversation took me back to the days when I worked for a sales agency - Troika - which helped introduce Alessandro's first British publishing project, Hesperus. Troika also represented many other fine independent publishers, and its work included being involved in the launch of another two new ventures that, through wonderful content, design and editorial passion and expertise, continue to enrich the publishing world today, namely Maia Press and Gallic Books.

It was exciting and fulfilling to watch and assist these projects become reality, and equally so to have become a part of the Capuchin team which is celebrating and restoring works of enduring literary value. As ever, it was also a pleasure to share Alessandro's company.

Quotation of the day

"There is no surprise more magical than the surprise of being loved. It is God's finger on man's shoulder." Charles Morgan.

Best wishes -


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