Tuesday 22 January 2019

Forgotten treasures

Non-fiction: The Book of Forgotten Authors, Christopher Fowler, Quercus Editions, hardback, 384 pages, €20.99

Treasure hunt: Fowler recalls finding three books by a long-forgotten author propping up a chair in a Thai takeaway
Treasure hunt: Fowler recalls finding three books by a long-forgotten author propping up a chair in a Thai takeaway
Belfast writer Brian Moore is included in the book
The book of Forgotten Authors

Eilis O'Hanlon

A new tribute to the massed ranks of obscure and neglected writers in the 20th century cannot fail to captivate any literary buff.

Thousands of books are published each year. Most disappear without trace. A lucky few authors hit the bestsellers list, but even they can soon be consigned to oblivion.

This book is about those once popular, now unremembered names. It's based on Christopher Fowler's Sunday newspaper column, 'Invisible Ink', and features 99 authors who have either been completely neglected - such as Robert Klane, a Jewish-American comic writer whose prose is described "as fast and blunt as a chucked brick"- or who are now known only for a single book, despite having written many more.

TH White of Sword in the Stone fame is one of the latter. Fowler has a soft spot for science-fiction authors, who have a greater tendency than most to recede from collective memory, so White's early apocalyptic novels about the end of the world were bound to pique his interest.

It's not that hard for an author to vanish completely, as he explains. "Their print runs can be pulped, copies misfiled, manuscripts lost, banned and burned. They can be ubiquitous, influential and massively successful, only to disappear within their own lifetimes."

Some of his inclusions are a bit odd. Are Margery Allingham, creator of the Campion detective series, and Virginia Andrews, author of the "compellingly awful" Gothic potboiler Flowers in the Attic, really forgotten? Their books are still very much in print and selling better than many contemporary authors.

As for Barbara Pym, Fowler must be joking. Thanks to Virago Modern Classics, Pym's delightful comic novels remain well loved, by a loyal and select audience admittedly, but she's hardly obscure. Other names are harder to argue with.

Who now remembers Maurice Richardson, the wealthy born, manic-depressive communist whose novel about a surrealist dwarf boxer, The Exploits of Engelbrecht, remains "one of the most unusual books ever published", including as it does the account of how Salvador Dali beat the Martians at a game of football on the Moon?

Then there's Tom Robbins, doyen of the 1960s counter culture, who wrote free-flowing novels with messy plots about South American shamen, pregnant cheerleaders, rogue nuns, and hitchers with enlarged thumbs. One is set entirely inside a packet of Camel cigarettes. Hippies loved him, but Robbins grew tired of his own fans and moved on to other things.

There is some Irish interest here, naturally. If there's one thing of which this country has no shortage, it's writers, neglected or otherwise. Few are more idiosyncratic than Edward John Moreton Drax Plunkett, aka Lord Dunsany, who produced scores of weird, whimsical tales featuring Gods and fairies. Dunsany was famous in his day as a poet and playwright, as well as being the pistol-shooting champion of Ireland. He wrote with a quill pen and allegedly never changed a single word, and maintains a dedicated following among fantasy enthusiasts to this day.

It's sad to see Belfast-born Brian Moore on the list, but equally hard to deny that he has been unjustly neglected since his death in 1999.

Moore was nominated no less than three times for the Booker Prize; five of his novels were filmed; he was also Graham Greene's favourite living writer, possibly because he explored the same themes of religious faith and conflicted morality. The Statement is a brilliant thriller about a former officer in the French pro-fascist militia during the war who manages to stay one step ahead of the authorities by hiding out in monasteries with the collusion of the monks. The film version starred Michael Caine and Tilda Swinton. Moore was a big-hitter in his time.

Interspersed with these vignettes are a dozen essays with titles ranging from 'The Forgotten Queens of Suspense' (which acknowledges how bygone female writers are now getting the attention they deserve because more women read fiction in the present day than men) to 'Forgotten For Writing Too Little - And Too Much'.

The latter contains a cautionary note for those about to embark on the literary life: "There were authors who wrote just one novel and others who wrote a thousand, now all equally forgotten." Some, Fowler freely admits, thoroughly deserve their place on literature's scrap heap.

The consolation of neglect is that there's always bound to be a coterie of devotees who remain passionate about one particular writer, because "real readers don't forget".

Barbara Comyns has 11 masterly, strange titles to her name, including Sister By a River, a fictionalised account of her eccentric country childhood which was serialised in the 1940s in Lilliput (a sort of Bloomsbury version of Playboy, featuring tasteful nudes) as 'The Novel Nobody Will Publish'. Thankfully, they've all since been reissued, again by Virago, whose role in saving neglected female writers from unjust obscurity cannot be praised highly enough.

Therein lies the rub. There are plenty of authors who've vanished almost completely from sight, but they'd be less fun to read about because it would be harder to follow up one's interest.

That has its own rewards. In the preface, Fowler suggests that the vogue for old paperbacks is coming back, in much the same way that vinyl records have enjoyed a revival. Tracking down a gem is always going to be a hit-and-miss affair, however. He recalls finding three books by a certain pulp writer propping up a chair in a Thai takeaway in London.

That's why he focusses here on authors whose star may have faded, but whose works can still be found with little effort, often in electronic form. The digital-publishing revolution is not to everyone's tastes. But here's where it decisively wins the argument - ebooks give life to old novels which would otherwise never see the light of day again. Technology giveth as well as taking away.

This snappy, engaging volume does not demand to be read at one sitting. It's perfect for dipping in and out, and a godsend with the present season approaching. The entries had to be cut down from an original list of 400 names, so some omissions are inevitable, but it's hard to believe that anyone who loves fiction of all genres wouldn't be completely won over by this treasure-filled book about books. They'll be left at the end with a teetering pile of must-read novels, but there are worse problems to have.

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