Found and Lost

Damn you, Gore Vidal. Damn you for starting it all by digging up Dawn Powell from Potter's Field, where she had been laid to her placidly pickled rest in 1957. Your piece on "our best comic writer" sparked a revival that sent a dozen titles that never earned back their piddling advances in 1930s dollars cannonballing into the Library of America. In short order, bidding wars broke out, biographies were written, diaries footnoted, and Walking Down Broadway, the play Powell never could get produced during her lifetime, packed them in on West 43rd St.

Looks like you're at it again with James Purdy. Once you got the ball rolling and passed it to Jonathan Franzen, Eustache Chisolm and the Works was an easy sell as a "forgotten classic". Actually, I have no opinion on either writer; I just want to bring up literary exhumation as a phenomenon before hauling up my candidate for forgotten classic of the month from the brackish shoals of oblivion, where, I respectfully submit, it is much too good to be suffered to remain.

Not that it's something I want make into a habit, though I'll admit to having pestered publishers in the past to get them to consider a new edition of Charles Plumb's English rendering of
The Satires of Juvenal. Plumb did a remarkable job of channeling the energy of the original in modern verse, including calypso - pity he was too early for rap. At the same time, enough of the authentic Roman comes through to prove that if you scratch a sneering cynic, underneath you'll find a layer of despair too deep for tears. Which is why I think this version of Juvenal holds its own with the other great modern recreations of classics by Robert Fitzgerald, David Slavitt and Robert Fagles.

But now the disclosure: Charles Plumb was a lovely man and a friend long departed, though my lobbying efforts are fueled by factors more self-interested than a posthumous plug  for old times' sake.
The Juvenal was published in 1968 by a cheapo British paperback house on paper that has aged and brittled faster than Dime Detective and Thrilling Wonder Stories pulps from a generation before. So come on, publishing people, get on it. I'd like to be able to re-read this one without having it fall apart on me. On this occasion, though, I have a different title in mind for special pleading. Absolutely guaranteed: it's great stuff, and nobody has ever heard of it, but you have to sit through some more preliminaries first.

Critics have found prospecting for neglected books or authors a sideline well worth cultivating, a gambit guaranteed to heap merit on the discoverer as well as the discoveree. How discerning, how well-read, to have lit on a treasure buried so deep! Extra points awarded if the author died young, if possible, in poverty or in the trenches of the Somme, or was stabbed by his mistress, or banned in Beantown, proof that the book in question was ahead of the zeitgeist curve and therefore genius-class. Edward Lewis Wallant qualifies on account of the aneurysm that killed him before his 36th birthday. The last time I read
The Tenants of Moonbloom, it was as a 35-cent Signet paperback released in the late sixties to cash in on the film of The Pawnbroker. Yet with no prompting from me, the NYRB Press has propelled Moonbloom back into print in its Classics series, with an introduction by Dave Eggars. Along with the Dalkey Archive and the Harvill imprints, NYRB Classics appears to be making money from  diving and salvage in the backlist and long may they keep at it.

But once our interest has been piqued, how often do we actually follow through? I'm grateful to Alberto Manguel for his hot tip on Richard Outram, whom he considers "one of the finest poets in the English language". He might even be right, from his sample stanzas and comments on where Outram's poetry is coming from, I have to say this sounds like exactly the stuff for me: "robust joyfulness" combined with intelligence and passion, expressed in a diction that brings Stevie Smith immediately to mind. But how likely am I, really, to overcome nature's lethargy and track down little-press chapbooks by a littler-known Canadian bard who conceivably may claim a place in the ever-dwindling ranks of poets who actually deliver the goods? Dubious, too, are my prospects of getting acquainted with the writing of B.S. Johnson (an ugly suicide) and Hilary Masters (still with us, I trust) whose work was brought to my attention via George Garret's critical miscellanies and sounds like something I really should have a look at.

The book that I know about and you don't is called
All Night at Mr Stanyhurst's, by a retired British Army officer named Hugh Edwards. It was published in 1933, originally, and again in 1963, after Ian Fleming, then at the height of his fame, prevailed upon his publishers to reissue it. This they did, after cadging an introduction out of him.

His midwifery done, Fleming's follow-up did not go very deep. Aping the banter of his pal Noel Coward, he relates a few dull facts and one piece of eyebrow-raising quasi-speculation regarding the author's life. More on that later. One would have liked to find out more about the compulsion that the book's "strange and beautiful words" exerted on the world's then-best selling author of popular fiction. Instead, we hear that Max Beerbohm "read it with the greatest pleasure", that James Agee called it "the best long story or short novel since Conrad", and that Fleming was flying over the Nevada desert en route to Chicago when it occurred to him to twist some arms to drum up new readers for a book that took four years to sell out its original 1500-copy print run.

The Mr. Stanyhurst of the title is a rake-hell, roue, profligate, a selfish, immoral and not unintelligent eighteenth-century London libertine who returns from his club one evening to dine with his child mistress, an addle-pated little slut he filched from her former "protector", his old lech of an uncle, when she was all of 14. Lovely Lucy,  of course, is the dessert course. Not that she particularly minds her lot in life. She considers what she gives out fair return for the trinkets, favors and finery received, and her only qualm is the fear of turning tricks down in docklands when Stanyhurst tires of her, as they both know he will before too much longer.

Enter the Abbe, a mysterious figure who has been invited to dine with them for no good reason at all. As the tobacco is passed around, the abbe reveals that an East India Company ship called the Blanchefleur has sunk off the coast of Africa, with the loss of a clandestine cargo worth millions and all lives on board save one. Stanyhurst, who had a pile of money riding on the venture, is naturally is keen when the abbe offers to produce the sole survivor of the wreck to tell a tale that is "at once sad, tragic and strange". With Lucy sitting in, the three of them stay up the rest of the night listening to sixteen-year-old Thomas Pidgeon, steward aboard the Blanchefleur, tells his tale of shipwreck and woe.

The new story-line takes up half of the book. Intermittent asides snap the reader back to the original  mis-en-scene as the boy breaks down in tears or is interrupted by his listeners. Lucy starts as a saucy tease, but soon is enthralled and deeply moved by the ordeal that Tommy recounts in the period vernacular of the British tar (quite different, incidentally, from the salty syntax of Patrick O'Brian's heroes.)

Tommy's account of how he shipped out to Ceylon introduces an interlude of devoted, innocent puppy-love with a pretty 15-year-old passenger. She is, in fact, an insufferable child (you wonder why nobody has heaved her overboard) who hero-worships the kind-hearted, impressionable boy. Edwards' command of detail is absorbing, the faux first-person voice convincing and his minute-by-minute account of the ship going down is right up there with the best descriptive narratives of what actually happens in a disaster at sea, and what it feels like to be part of it.

The rest is disease, starvation, hardships and horror for the handful of castaways who wash up on the West African coast. The natives they encounter not so much hostile as indifferent to the survivors, whose plight they find hilarious, until most of the adult males are massacred in an offstage skirmish. As the ordeal drags on, women, children, Lucy's mother, are carried off by disease, exhaustion or hyenas. Tommy staggers with his beloved airhead towards a Dutch settlement down the coast, and comforts her with lies as she dies in his arms. It ends as all these stories must end: "And only I am escaped alone to tell thee" or "my ghastly tale
is told".  

All this time, you feel the raw power of the "well-told story" which Iris Murdoch took as being at the heart of the successful novel, interestingly enough citing
Treasure Island as the supreme example of its kind. Mr Stanyhurst's is also a marvellous piece of writing. The tale that unfolds within another tale, two stories joined together at the waist, like Cupid and Psyche in The Golden Ass, rather than interludes or sideshows spliced into a unitary narrative, like the bits everyone skips over in Don Quixote. Borges was another fan of literary twofers and noted that "Arthur Schopenhauer wrote that dreaming and wakefulness are the pages of a single book, and that to read them in order is to live, and to leaf through them at random, to dream. Paintings within paintings and books that branch into other books help us sense this oneness."

This dream-like effect here seems intentional. Tommy's beloved bears the same name as the ship, Blanchefleur, but after she reveals that her father had wanted to call her Lucy, Lucy she is to her young savior. The other Lucy, the wanton saucepot, is actually her double, as Tommy intuits at once. ("'She was like you,' he resumed, looking gravely into the girl's face. 'I know it soon's I come into the room. But she was younger'") The compelling power of the well-told tale has transformed the child-vixen and caused her to experience the need to comfort and care for another. ("'Let me take her place, Tommy,' the girl said very quietly.") 

Fleming tells us that after being invalided out of the British Army's West India Regiment when he contracted blackwater fever in Sierra Leone, Hugh Edwards (1874-1952) retired to a fisherman's cottage "in which he lived the life of an eighteenth-century recluse, confining himself to one attic in which there was nothing but a large bed and hundreds of books." If we are to believe Fleming, none of the four other novels that came out of that attic are much good, although Edwards "lived the remote life of his imagination for many years, reading, writing and composing albums of nonsense rhymes for the numerous nephews and nieces and cousins who came there for the holidays."

Presumably it was from one of these relatives that Fleming got a notion of what  made Hugh Edwards' imagination go rocketing like fireworks in just this one book. "In his Edwardian youth, he had been by all accounts a young blade of tremendous dash and virility with a zest for all the wine of life, but one of the terrible side-effects of blackwater fever is that it rids a man of all appetite for these things and there is no doubt that the romantic sexuality and the background of high life to
All Night at Mr Stanyhurst's are sentimental memories of the young rake-hell he had once been."

Oh, is that it? To me it sounds like just the sort of thing Fleming would foist on his readers: purported inside dope combined with obscure expertise. Remember, this was the writer that couldn't even get the caliber of James Bond's Walther PPK right. This "forgotten classic" is one that would be better served with a brand new introduction for the sake of the new readers of the new edition that some prescient publisher is taking far too long to bring to market.

          Robert Latona 2007