Thursday, 27 August 2009


There are intersting similarities between the subject of the last blog, Storm Jameson, and the author of another title we launch in October, Penelope Gilliatt and A State of Change respectively. For one thing, both are now far less known than their considerable talents deserve; for another Gilliatt, like Jameson, was a keen analyst of politics and society, and wove these observations into her remarkable writing. Born to parents raised in the world of the Newcastle shipping trade, she developed and maintained a strong left-wing perspective on life, and was one of the founding members of the anti Hydrogen Bomb Commitee of 100.

A State of Change is set in London during the period between 1949 and the late 1960's, and examines - as Ali Smith points our in her superb and inspiring foreword -
post-war health, rebirth and art...
and is
very much a critique of words and what they mean, and of Britishness in the 1960's...
Its main character is - with interesting prescience - a young Polish immigrant, Kakia Grabowska, who finds a London
full of closed circles and bitterness about income tax
and who attracts the attentions of two very different suitors as she explores and reacts to the radically different world in which she hopes to find a less harsh and cynical life than she had endured as a member of a persecuted race in wartime Warsaw.

One of the truly remarkable things about Gilliatt is the range of her talents. Not only did she write brilliantly structured and compelling fiction (Ali Smith compares her writing to that of Muriel Spark, DH Lawrence and Ivy Compton Burnett) but was an accomplished pianist, a renowned cinema critic (for The Observer, among other journals) and an award-winning screenplay writer (for Sunday, Bloody Sunday).

It would be a great cultural loss if this fine novelist and exceptionally talented individual was chiefly remembered for having once been married to John Osborne.

I hope you enjoy her book.


Tuesday, 25 August 2009


In the first of four blogs looking at the Capuchin Classics to be unleashed in October, I wanted to say a few words about Storm Jameson, author of Love in Winter.

Jameson is precisely the kind of writer that Capuchin was established to r
ecover from undeserved neglect. She published an extraordinary 45 novels (in addition to much non-fiction work) between 1919 and 1979, joining the ranks of writers who united a consummate narrative gift for plot and characterisation with an acute and critical vision of the harm that society, politics and war can do to a nation and its people. Never losing sight of her socialist and humanitarian principles, Jameson became the first woman president of International PEN at the outbreak of World War II, and was instrumental in the escape of writers from German-occupied Europe.

As Julie Birkett points out in her illuminating and inspiring foreword to our edition, which can be downloaded from the Capuchin website, Love in Winter is, as well as a moving and closely autobiographical account of her struggles to obtain a divorce and remarry, a superb so
cial and economic anatomy of London in 1924. The city in this novel is akin to a fantastic, complex living creature, which one of the characters finds is

in her ears, like a wild beast".

Birkett also points out the importance of writing and writers in Jameson's
world view, and how she looked to them to provide visions of a
happier, safer world.

Storm Jamieson's full, fascinating life is told in Julie Birkett's recently published biography, Margaret Storm Jameson, a Life (OUP 2009).


Thursday, 20 August 2009


I jokingly remarked to a very academically gifted friend of mine recently that tackling a chapter of her thesis on Shakespeare using only my under-equipped brain had given me nosebleeds, dizzy spells and fever.

This started me thinking about the relationship between words, reading and physiological effects, and I recalled an SF novel by Neal Stephenson, Snowcrash, in which a computer virus threatens the brains of those who 'read' it through their internet connections. It's a novel bubbling over with wit, invention and humour, and thoroughly recommended.

AE Housman famously declared that he couldn't think of a great line of poetry while he was shaving because it would give him goose-pimples and he would cut himself. Also, in the lovely novel The Crock of Gold by James Stephens, one of the characters says: "I will make a poem some day....and every man will shout when he hears it".

Said thesis-writing friend added:

and consider as well Elizabethan antitheatricalists with their theories of physiological mimesis in spectators (men turning into women, for instance, after witnessing transvestite performances onstage).

Every Man will Shout was also, incidentally, the title of a poetry anthology we used in middle school, which has stuck in my mind, as does the gentle refrain of our then English teacher that:

Literature is life, and studying literature is studying life.


Monday, 17 August 2009


Using the current announcement of women's boxing being admitted to the Olympics as the flimsiest of pretexts, I wanted to write a little about my pleasure in reading Capuchin Classic's very own Cashel Byron's Profession. This book, as you may know, has a prizefighter as its male lead, and was one of only five novels produced by Shaw.

Anthony Lejeune's thoughtful introduction leads into a very Shavian preface, in which the writer holds forth with witty mock self-effacement about the whole tricky business of getting publishers to accept novels. It begins:

I never think of Cashel Byron's Profession without a shudder at the narrowness of my escape from becoming a successful novelist at the age of twenty-six. At that moment an adventurous publisher would have ruined me. Fortunately for me, there were no adventurous publishers at that time...

Later in this piece Shaw describes his return to the manuscript of an old, unpublished novel thus:

Part of it had by this time been devoured by mice, though even they had not been able to finish it.

Shaw is also not too proud to unveil the playfully cruel analysis produced by Robert Louis Stevenson of this novel, which ends:

Struggling, overlaid original talent......................... 1 1/2 part
Blooming gaseous folly............................................. 1 part

The novel itself opens with Cashel's somewhat listless and disengaged mother being informed by the Headmaster of her son's school that Cashel is displaying a lack of appetite for education coupled with an unhealthy interest in fisticuffs. Having been then summoned by his mama for a private interview, and vainly defending himself, Cashel resolves to run away to sea, in company with another disaffected boy who aims for Scotland. The description of their flight is a classic piece of comic writing, which prefigures Wodehouse to some extent. Here is the hapless companion's experience as a runaway:

After parting from Cashel and walking two miles, he had lost heart and turned back. Half way to the cross roads he had reproached himself with cowardice, and resumed his flight. This time he placed eight miles betwixt himself and Moncrief House. Then he left the road to make a short cut through a plantation, and went astray. After wandering dejectedly until morning, he saw a woman working in a field, and asked her the shortest way to Scotland. She had never heard of Scotland; and when he asked her the shortest way to Panley, she grew suspicious and threatened to set her dog at him.

This is a light but brilliantly witty novel, which any lover of well-constructed English prose will enjoy.

P.S. We had a question sent to us about the ending of South Wind, and a possible 'missing' three lines. We would like to confirm that the author - Norman Douglas - produced different versions of this passage, and that the version from which we worked both matches the last edition of the book and is approved by the Society of Authors.


Friday, 7 August 2009


Rounding off the books in books theme, I couldn't resist mentioning the wonderfully strange library in Garth Nix's novel Lirael. This book belongs to the Abhorsen trilogy, an intelligent and brilliantly realised fantasy series that, while packaged for young adults, should appeal to any discriminating book lover. One of the series' particular strengths, and where many lesser books of this type fall short, is in the way it delineates the relationship and differences between 'our' world and the magical realm. The ways in which the latter is constructed and operates are particularly well thought through. I would rank this writing alongside the Earthsea books for its handling of fantasy material and seriousness of purpose and subject matter.

The library in question, being a repository of arcane and magical material, is not a place into which to tread lightly, in that one may encounter within its walls not only powerful and dangerous books but also deadly creatures who are 'shelved' along with the more conventional items, and releasing whom may prove fatal. Much witty play is made of how dangerous it is to accept the sacred role of a librarian in this library. I wonder if Mr. Nix (not a nom-de-plume, apparently) is reacting here against the (profoundly unjust) stereotyping of the species as timid and colourless, and if so whether this is borne out of having been a librarian himself.

For anyone who hasn't discovered this series, I suggest you weave the appropraite spell and manifest immediately in your local bookshop to rectify this grave omission.


Wednesday, 5 August 2009


Following on from yesterday's discussion of Labyrinths, I'd like to sing the praises of a novel which uses books within books to great comic effect, namely At Swim Two Birds, by Flann O'Brien. O'Brien's The Third Policeman is my favourite novel, and while At Swim... has the same qualities of erudite wit and surreal imagination, it is a denser, more difficult novel, steeped in references to Irish mythology, and especially to the mad king Sweeney and Finn Mac Cool.

It is hard to convey the quality and nature of this bizarre and complex work, but it depends to a large extent for its effects on the inter-weaving of different texts and modes of writing. These include a cliche-riddled series of letters from a racing tipster, a 'Conspectus of arts and sciences' and the wonderful, insane ravings of the mad bird-king Sweeney. Moreover, a series of fictions is nested within the book, which accounts for much of its structure and appeal, as the narrator is found to be writing a book in which a character is writing a book, the characrters of which in turn write a book to punish 'their' author for the way in which they're treated in his book. Genres, characters and plots spill into each other and overlap in a bewildering and hilarious literary kaleidoscope.

I'm very conscious of this being a woefully inadequate description. Go read it.


Tuesday, 4 August 2009


At a shamefully late stage in my reading life, I have finally read Labyrinths by Borges. While finding a few of the stories less interesting than I'd anticipated, I thought that most of them were brilliant, thought-provoking exercises in the literature of ideas, particularly in their discussion of language, meta-fiction and meta-reality. My favourite is The Library of Babel, which begins:

The universe, (which others call the Library) is composed of an indefinite and perhaps infinite number of hexagonal galleries, with vast air shafts between, surrounded by very low railings.......Like all men of the Library, I have traveled in my youth; I have wandered in search of a book, perhaps the catalogue of catalogues.

The story goes on to explore various aspects of the Library and the books within, including the notion that the Library contains all the possible books of which one could conceive, and 'the Man of the Book' :

On some shelf in some hexagon, (men reasoned) there must exist a book which is the formula and perfect compendium of all the rest: some librarian has gone through it and is analogous to a god. In the language of this zone vestiges of this remote functionary's cult still persist.

The themes of religion, philosophy, language and existential meaning are all woven through this story in a manner which is both intellectually dazzling and highly readable, and it has lodged firmly in my mind, already nagging me to re-read it.

I'll be writing about other books in books over the next couple of days.