Who loads the literary canons?

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals. This week, William Gerhardie’s Doom

William Gerhardie.

William Gerhardie showing how to wear a hat. from http://impedimenta.es/

It is easy to see the literary canon, however you want to define those two words (and I certainly do not want to), as something fixed, like the constellations in the night sky. Yet, like the constellations, it moves. D.H. Lawrence is one of those stars, arcing across our evening skies. This, I’m sure, appears most just. But it did not seem so certain a century ago. This is what Arnold Bennett wrote in his column of the 19th of April 1928:

It has been written by somebody young, I am told, that there is only a single English novelist living who counts: D.H. Lawrence. But there may be others. Indeed there are. William Gerhardi counts. In my opinion Gerhardi has genius. Like the accouchement of a political duchess, the appearance of his new novel, Jazz and Jasper…is an interesting event.”

Bennett would not, I am sure, be surprised to find Lawrence being taught in our schools and universities or serialised on the radio. But would he, I wonder, have been expecting to find Gerhardi there too? Having read the novel, retitled Doom and an extra ‘e’ added to Gerhardie by Gerhardi, I like to think that in a parallel universe he is indeed being taught to students and listened to on the radio. This parallel world would, by necessity, be a bit bonkers but it might also be a world that paid a little bit more attention to some of things we seem to let slip, such as doing our best not to blow it up.

It’s hard to know where to begin with the novel. Is it social satire, science fiction or plain good old-fashioned English whimsy such as Beachcomber produced during the same period in the Daily Express? In the novel we meet Frank Dickin, a writer; Lord Ottercove, an immensely powerful press baron who wants turn Frank into a bestselling writer; Eva, with whom, if memory serves me right, Frank is in love and Lord de Jones, who claims he can solve the world hunger by blocking up every volcano in the world (also in love with Eva.) There is a car that flies and the safest place to be in the world turns out to be a hotel in the Austrian Tyrol. The novel may even be an allegory for the Christian Creation Story.

Whatever it is (and I shall certainly be rereading it, to try and find out) my estimation of Bennett, already high, has, if anything, risen further. Here is a man who made his money writing bestsellers and being friends with his very own press baron Lord Beaverbrook and whose book columns consistently champion the young, the new and odd. He had free rein from Beaverbrook but he never exploited it. His columns were fresh, lively and written in a clear, almost chatty, style. I like to think of people opening the paper and wondering “What has he written about this week?”

On the 13th of April, Bennett thought about his film Piccadilly, bought a watch for Dorothy and straight home to celebrate the second birthday of his daughter Virginia.

Bennett’s Twelve Best Novels: all Russian

For over two years I used Arnold Bennett’s self-help book Literary Taste to find out if, a century after the book’s publication, it was possible to create my own literary taste. To carry on the experiment, I will now read the books reviewed by Arnold Bennett in the Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 in his weekly column, Books and Persons. To bring a little personal perspective I will, where possible, draw on entries from his personal journals.


The Bennett family home in Cobridge – pen drawing by Neville Malkin – source http://www.thepotteries.org


Arnold Bennett was born in 1867 in Hanley in the Potteries. He grew up in a modest house in that town but following his father’s qualification as a solicitor they moved in 1881 to Cobridge. His father had bought a building site there and built a house on it, costing £1,001 (calculated using the measure of historic standard of living as £90,180 in 2015). His adolescence then passed, if not in absolute luxury, then at least in relative luxury, compared to many people in nearby Stafford who earned, on average, 13/- 6d per week (£73.35 measured using the same historic standard of living). He, as we know, moved to London, driven, if not by a desire to escape poverty, then to escape the heavy hand of his father, especially when it came to money (Bennett would always be generous when it came to entertaining and travelling). He would return to the Potteries in some of his best novels, Anna of the Five Towns and The Old Wives’ Tale, for example. But he never regretted the personal, professional and cultural freedom he discovered first in London and then Paris. Throughout his life this theme of discovery of the new, achieved through self-improvement, would appear in his work. It was his self-help book, Literary Taste: How to Form It that inspired me to write this blog.


Nikolai Leskov – inscribed photograph- source Wikipedia.

I do wonder sometimes which of his Books and Persons columns grew out of this set of beliefs. His column of the 10th of February 1927 would appear to be one of these. He may not have chosen the strapline, The Twelve Finest Novels All Russian, but that is the message he wanted to give. As a bestselling English author with a column in The Evening Standard he would have received books from every major UK publisher but, in this column, he chose instead to set the cat amongst the pigeons and praise the Russian writer Nikolai Leskov, a contemporary of Tolstoy. Bennett did not discover Leskov for English readers, or indeed any Russian writer. Pushkin had been translated since the 1820s; Tolstoy from the early 1900s and Dostoevsky from the 1910s, largely through the pioneering work of Constance Garnett. But here he was, friend of H.G.Wells, Frank Harris and Lord Beaverbrook (owner of The Evening Standard), introducing Leskov’s short novel The Enchanted Wanderer:

I have been asserting for 20 years that the twelve finest novels are all Russian, and as time passes I find an increasing number of people to agree with me; I have little doubt that the number of people will continue to increase. So that I hope to be excused if I say, as I do say, that the appearance of an English translation of a novel by Lyeskov (or Leskov) is an important event in the literary year.

Of the novel itself he wrote:

The Enchanted Wanderer is a masterpiece – of humour, pathos, romance, and adventure. No novelist ever had a finer narrative gift  than Lyeskov. Even if he was not obviously a genius, his mere technical skill would make him remarkable in the evolution of the art of fiction.

Having read the novel, I cannot help but wonder what I missed. Enjoyable, insightful, at times charming, I could not shake the feeling that I was reading a “one-thing-after-another” novel. The central character, Ivan Flyagin, suffers much pain and heartache until he enters a monastery, as promised to God by his mother when a baby. And that’s about it. This is, however, by-the-by. Arnold Bennett, the local boy made good in the world, thought it worth praising to the readership 0f The Evening Standard. What did they make of it? In a post-war Britain, where Sir Malcolm Campbell had just set a new world land speed record of 174 m.p.h. and Cardiff City beat Arsenal 1-0 to win the F.A. Cup, did the readers of The Evening Standard buy the novel? Impossible to say, of course. But something did happen to sales of the novel, as can be seen in this Ngram measuring the number of times the title appeared in English:

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Ngram showing mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer.

This reflects all mentions in English of The Enchanted Wanderer, such as in Ford Madox Ford’s The English Review of 1927 or The Book-of-the-Month Club news from 1950. But somewhere in that peak of 1927ish is Bennett’s review and I am sure it was good enough for readers of his column to go out and buy the novel. Like Bennett, they too may have looked for the new, and in a novel like this have seen an opportunity for self-improvement.

On the 9th of February, Bennett read of the death of his friend and novelist George Sturt, a now largely forgotten writer on English rural life; and on the 10th, Bennett finished reading Histoire de la Bienheureuse Fille Raton, a rather rude French novel.


“A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts” reviewed

A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts.
Hilary at the Vulpes Libris literary website wrote a review of my novel A Republic of Wolves. A City of Ghosts – “… a novel containing some brilliant writing and a masterly control of the material.”

If you would like to read the review, you can find it here.

If you would like to buy the novel in ebook format you can find it at Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com, iBookstore or Lulu.

Spain, 1940. The Alhambra Palace in Granada, the jewel of Muslim architecture, lies in ruins. But the capture of the city could save the Republic. What price victory?

There is no ism in review

I am reading the books recommended by Arnold Bennett in his self-help guide Literary Taste: How To Form It, first published in 1909 and reissued in 1938. Can following a prescribed reading list from over a hundred years ago lead to forming a literary taste? A graph is normally included. This week, a review by Arnold Bennett of Laura Riding’s book:

Spanish literary reviews, like the landscape, tend to be somewhat flat. Worthy, serious, detailed they may be, they are also a bit dull. In this week’s literary supplement in El Pais, Babelia, there are five pages on the Spanish literary exiles of the Civil War, a dissection of Picasso’s genius, an Italian writer called Luigi Pintor, an interview with Yasmin Reza, two pages on Edward Hopper, reviews of books about the vanguardista Maruja Mallo, translations of Danish poetry, Spinoza and his century, an anthology of ultraist poetry and two books on slavery; there’s also an article on the novel and masturbation. Take a look at the Saturday Review of The Guardian and there’s an article entitled Amis – national treasure or national embarrassment. The Spanish equivalent would be an article entitled Antonio Muñoz Molina – he’s a bit mental isn’t he?

It’s not going to happen and I think it’s not going to happen because the Spanish literary world, apart from being from being small, is a comfortable one with frequent conferences for the successful writers and respectful reviews for the newcomers. Nobody wants to rock the boat. British literary culture, on the other hand, sometimes appears to be built on the premise of not just rocking the boat but sinking it with heavy naval gunfire. From Wordsworth’s dismissal of Coleridge as a drunkard, Thackeray’s accusations of Dicken’s infidelity to Zadie Smith’s spat with the critic James Wood about contemporary literary theory, the British literary world has been characterised by snide, bitchy, funny and untrue comments. But as Orson Welles pointed out in The Third Man, centuries of peace in Switzerland had led to the invention of the cuckoo clock, whereas thirty years of the Borgias had led to murder, warfare, terror and, of course, Michaelangelo. You can see where that metaphor is leading to, can’t you?

Our man Bennett had his fair share of literary feuds, the one with Virginia Woolf being possibly the most famous and the one with his neighbour’s cat that shat in his beetroot being less well-known (the beetroot was in the jar, not in the garden). Considering that he had a regular review column in the The Evening Standard from 1926 to 1931 and was one of Britain’s most influential book critics (if not the most influential critic) it is surprising that he did not have more. I think he largely escaped the backbiting gossip because his reviews drew on his love of reading and he wrote without rancor. They are in a word disarming, Consider this from the first of March, 1928. Reviewing Laura Riding’s Contemporaries and Snobs (Cape, 7s 6d), he wrote:

…Miss Riding possesses intellectual power; also some intelligence. Also various defects. I shall not attempt to state her theory of modernist poetry. In order to do so, I should have to read the book again, and I would not read it again for £100. The book is metaphysics. I think it would interest Mr. Bertrand Russell, who probably alone in England is capable of grappling with it effectively.

I am sure Miss Riding gained extra readers from this review, probably declaring “What is good for Mr. Russell is good enough for me.”

I could read a book of these reviews, which is what I am doing. Arnold Bennett: The Evening Standard Years, edited by Andrew Mylett (Chatto and Windus, ). Long out of print, it is well worth tracking down on Alibris or Abebooks. The voice of the intelligent middlebrow, Bennett is never less than chatty in tone and engaging in content. He is a raconteur of literary anecdotes which are at odd with the stammer he suffered from. The gods, being Greek, have, if nothing else, a keen sense of irony.

The cat, I’m afraid, is an invention. But in the alternative universe which skips behind our own, that cat marvels at his ability to open a jar of beetroot and shit in it.

Laura Riding was, on the other hand, very real. Poet (although she later renounced her poetry), critic, partner of Robert Graves, she lived until the ripe old age of 90, dying in Florida in 1991.

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