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ISSUE 12

JEAN RHYS REVISITED by Alexis Lykiard. Stride Publications. £11.95. ISBN 1 90015268 1.  

I recently read a small book, Ex Libris:Confessions of a Common Reader by Anne Fadiman, daughter of the American 'man of letters,' Clifton Fadiman. It's a delightful book and should appeal to anyone who is fascinated, even obsessed, by books. I mention it here because Anne Fadiman's enthusiasm for her subject reminds me of Alexis Lykiard and his obvious love of literature. Jean Rhys Revisited is very much about the lady and Lykiard's friendship with her, but it is also a book that discusses the writing life generally and pays tribute to any number of overlooked or forgotten writers.  

It shouldn't be necessary to say too much about Jean Rhys. Her reputation has grown over the years, though my experiences tell me that most people will say, "Ah, yes, Wide Sargasso Sea," when her name is mentioned. Personally, I always preferred her earlier novels but that's another story. She went through a period in the 40s and 50s when her books were out-of-print and she lived in obscurity and near-poverty, but the 60s brought some recognition and her books were re-published and her new work acclaimed. Since her death there has been the inevitable fat biography and various academic studies. She is not likely to be completely forgotten again.  

Alexis Lykiard got in touch with her after reading several of her books in the late-60s. They interested him because "their author knew Paris, and men, and drink, all of which was fine with me." Their friendship developed and over the years Lykiard visited her and they corresponded. His book tells us all this but a lot more besides. They often discussed books and recalling their conversations or letters gives him the opportunity to look at the lives and work of writers whose names are probably only known to those who spend their time in dusty second-hand bookshops. Who now reads Oliver Onions or Ralph Cheever Dunning or Alfred Hayes? Onions turned his hand to crime and historical novels as well as some wonderful ghost stories, including The Beckoning Fair One, which Jean Rhys thought the most terrifying tale of its type ever written. Dunning was an opium-addicted poet who Rhys probably met in Paris in the 20s and who was much praised by Ezra Pound, I've got to admit that I've never thought the Dunning poems printed in Pound's magazine, The Exile, all that good, but he perhaps deserves better than oblivion. And Alfred Hayes was an American writer with several novels to his credit, including two, In Love (1954) and My Face for the World To See (1958), which are models of near-perfection. He had also been linked to the literary Left In the USA In the 30s. These are just three names from the many that Lykiard mentions but they give an idea of how he clearly ranges far and wide to find writing he thinks interesting.  

Jean Rhys's own books are looked at in some detail and her life, in London, Paris, and elsewhere, is also examined. She had problems, with men, with drink, with generally coping with the everyday functions of shopping, cooking, cleaning, and so on. Her life was dedicated to writing, though she cryptically remarked in a BBC Interview: "If I had to choose, I'd rather be happy than write." But she had to write, despite her awareness of the problems it can sometimes bring and the fact that literary reputations can disappear overnight. Her response was to carry on regardless. Lykiard himself knows all about the vicissitudes of the writing life so understands how Rhys felt: "You tried to entertain, or to unburden yourself, to make money or literature or both or neither, for the love of words and life, with some laughs along the way."  

One of the attractive aspects of Jean Rhys Revisited is that it's almost impossible to slot it into some neat category. It's biography and autobiography, memoir and criticism, literary history and social comment, all mixed together and with the love of books throughout. I mentioned a few of the forgotten or lesser-known authors in its pages and there are numerous others. I'd guess that Lykiard takes the view that good writing is where you find It and that finding it can be fun. It also requires you to look beyond the lists of names provided by the academy or the establishment. William Hope Hodgson, Julian Maclaren-Ross, Jim Thompson, George MacDonald - a young would-be writer could do far worse then use Lykiard's book as a starting place for an exploration of the variety of good writing overlooked when literary histories era written. Reading, in as wide a way as possible, is the only true method of learning how to write.

Alexis Lykiard has written a book which not only pays homage to Jean Rhys but also salutes any number of good but neglected writers. And it's a pleasure to read it. Turning Its pages I wanted to look at the Jean Rhys novels again and I also wanted to explore in some dusty secondhand bookshops to see if I could find a few forgotten but fascinating writers.

THE COMING DAY by Edward Upward (Enitharmon, £7.99)

‘Like many other Europeans,' wrote Isherwood in 1939, 1 have come to feel that Franz Kafka, alone among modern novelists, discovered a realty satisfactory way of writing about the age in which we live.., his is the nightmare world of the dictators.' A week later German soldiers entered Prague.  

Few European writers shaped our perception of the twentieth-century as Kafka did, and yet for all his admirers he has had remarkably few successful imitators (consider the critical silence which greeted Kazuo Ishiguro's self-consciously 'Prague novel' The Unconsoled). in this country the most successful exponent of paranoia-narratives remains Isherwood's old school-friend Edward Upward. 'Behind Auden and Spender and Isherwood,' wrote John Lehmann, 'stood the even more legendary figure' of Upward; Isherwood dedicated All the Conspirators to him (and gave him a co-starring role in Lions and Shadows), while Auden dedicated a poem to him in The Orators.  

Curiously, although Upward has long outlived the rest of the Auden group, his fame and his reputation withered many years ago. Remaining a member of the Communist Party long after it was fashionable (he only left the Party in 1948 because he believed it was abandoning 'Marxism-Leninism') and repudiating the Anglicised Kafkaesque of Journey to the Border Upward published nothing for over twenty years. When The Spiral Ascent trilogy finally appeared in the 1960s and 1970s, its humourless, didactic naturalism seemed to confirm the loss of a remarkable prose stylist. If Edward Upward was remembered at all, it was for being forgotten.  

Now in his ninety-eighth year, Upward is enjoying an astonishing late burst of creativity and critical attention. Since 1987 he has published two volumes of memoirs, a selection of the Mortmere tales he wrote with Isherwood, and four books of new short-stories in which he has returned to a modified form of the Mortmere/Kafka techniques of seventy years ago.  

The stories in The Corning Day are less manic than The Night Walk (1987), less strident than An Unmentionable Man (1994) and - more controlled than The Scenic Railway (1997). They range from pedantic suburban realism (The War Widow and The Intangible Man) to dystopian pantomime (The Serial Dreamer and The Suspect). A Better Job succeeds in making utopia feel ordinary, while Imaginative Man and Women begins as a closely observed study in ordinariness only to suddenly tilt at the end towards utopian fantasy.  

By far the most successful story is the novella The Coming Day. It is as good as anything Upward has written since the Stephen Highwood stories in An Unmentionable Man, and in a few places it is as wonderfully disturbing as Journey to the Border. Upward employs all the familiar techniques he has made his own. A series of untrustworthy guides lead us through a half-recognised, anaesthetized world- part Bunyan, part Alice, part Gulliver - where dreams turn out to be real, the apparently solid turns out to be dreamed, and time and space are bewilderingly elastic. Between the bizarre and the banal, menace and manners, vivid nightmares and lucid memories, between fussy, inconsequential detail and abrupt, violent changes of tone, the story lurches towards its bathetic, Forster-ish ending.  

Cedric is an uncertain, physically weak, paranoid old man ('you haven't known me quite long enough to realise how paranoid I can be about spies and secret service agents'), but too well-mannered to question or challenge the strange, hallucinatory tableaux through which he sleepwalks. There are some wonderfully paranoid observations; served by an unsmiling barmaid, Cedric suspects she is a fanatical adherent of a new religion called 'Endor'; suffering from stomach-ache he suspects he has been poisoned by happening to brush up against the leaves of a giant hogweed'. And in the solemn dialogue and somehow sinister abundance of adverbs ('hostilely', 'surnamelessly', 'servilely') Upward surely owes less to The Trial than he does to The Young Visitors Of course Cedric is right to be paranoid. As he jokes, 'just because you're paranoid doesn't mean they aren't watching you.' He is under surveillance. He is lost. Visiting an abattoir where sausages are made from the corpses of the homeless, Cedric only just escapes being butchered himself.  

This is the best episode in the whole book, genuinely shocking. But the writing doesn't always hit this note of real nightmare. Too often it feels like a straining after effect (severed heads in the dorm, a decapitated dog) or after a political point. If The Railway Accident was self-indulgent In-between-the-wars English Gothic ('coaches mounted like viciously copulating bulls', a faint jet of blood sprayed from a vacant window') here a train-crash is introduced simply to make a (rather obvious) point about privatisation. Compared to the targets of Journey to the Border (liberalism, sexual neurosis, high adventure, Freudian psychology, careerism, money, Fascism, war) the concerns of The Coming Day (private nursing homes, football supporters, police corruption, cautious trade union leaders, the closing of schools in rural areas, the right to roam, sexually-predatory public-school masters, the sausage industry) seem ever so slightly Pooterish.

It Is not that there aren't plenty of reasons to be worried at the start of the twentyfirst century. But we no longer live in 'the nightmare world of the dictators', and Kafka may no longer be the best model for writing about power and powerlessness in our time.

 

BEATS, BOHEMIANS AND INTELLECTUALS by Jim Burns. Trent Books, £799 ISBN 090548857 1.

Let me declare an interest. I've known Jim Burns for many years and have been in more than a few pubs with him and listened to him talk about what he refers to as his 'obsessions' in the foreword to this collection of essays. I share some of his tastes, though as anyone who knows him will tell you he tends to assume that everyone will be fascinated by the lives of forgotten bop musicians or the writings of obscure Beat poets, and he is puzzled when they’re not. Needless to say, he sometimes wears an anorak.  

Beats, Bohemians and Intellectuals is a selection from the essays and long reviews he's published over the past thirty-five or so years, though with an emphasis on material from the 1990s. That is, material published in the 1990s. The subject-matter of the essays is mostly from decades before that, largely the 1920s through to the 1950s. Burns's interests seem to stop around 1960, at least if one takes this book as evidence. I know that he regularly reviews new poetry, so he isn't completely stuck in the past, but his longer pieces do tend to focus on the decades referred to. There is a good reason for this, and Burns would probably argue that bohemians and intellectuals, at least as he envisages them, no longer have a meaningful place in society. This is certainly the message that comes across in his essays on Irving Howe and Isaac Rosenfeld, where the decline of an intellectual community of a non-academic kind is noted and lamented. And he equally regrets the way in which the original Beat community, with its emphasis on bookshops, little magazines, and small presses, disappeared into the pop-dominated culture of the 1960s. In an interview with Alien Ginsberg printed in the book, Bums suggests that Ginsberg lost something as he moved away from his Jewish radical roots and took to Eastern religions, drugs, and synthetic protest.  

The radical tradition is certainly where Burns finds his home and most of the essays touch on it in one way or another. Some of the subjects of his writing are, to be honest, obscure to the point of being perverse. Not many people here will know much about Kenneth Fearing or Kenneth Patchen, but has anyone in this country, apart from Burns himself, heard of Edwin Rolfe, an American poet who fought in the Spanish Civil War and fell foul of McCarthyite witch-hunters in the 1950s? I can hear Burns saying, "Well, they ought to know about him," and he may have a point, though I tear he's fighting losing battle against a world that gives its allegiances to footballers and pop singers.  

Bohemians crop up often in Burns's essays, though he's far from being one himself. "But it's a state of mind," he would argue, and it is, though his innate Puritanism stops him being truly in accord with it. But he's interested in bohemianism and a couple of essays investigate the legend of Greenwich Village and, as with the intellectuals, note the decline of the older-style communities. Burns proposes that the rise of pop culture has tended to destroy the thinking that went on in Bohemia. If a Bohemia does now exist it's a pretty mindless one where pop music drowns out anything worthwhile that might be said. Or so Burns would say.  

The first piece in the book, and the earliest in chronological terms, investigates the influence of American books, films, and music on Burns's thinking. It will appeal to those of a similar age and background who turned to America as a relief from the class-ridden and dull British culture of the 1940s and 1950s. It gave me a picture of a young Burns hugging his little hoard of bebop records and hurrying through the damp streets of a northern industrial town to the house of the one other person who would listen to them, while planning his weekly cinema-going so he could avoid any British films, and occasionally patting his pocket to make sure the paperback American novel was still there. But I think he's unfair to the local library, which he dismisses as alien, because it's obvious that libraries were places where anyone could get some sort of education. I'd guess that Burns himself actually spent more time in the library than he admits.  

This is a useful book, largely because it explores aspects of American writing and culture not often gone into in depth in this country in non-academic circles and perhaps not too often in those circles either. Burns's prose style is, as John Freeman describes it in his introduction, characterised by an 'unfussy straightforwardness,' and he thankfully steers clear of jargon. I remarked earlier that I share some of his tastes, but I'm not sure that his enthusiasm for the Beats is always well-founded and I suspect that time will not be too kind to most of them.  

 

THE COLLECTED GEORGE GARRETT edited by Michael Murphy. Trent Editions, £7.99. (iSBN 0905488482).  

Working-class writers have never found it easy to get into print, but a few did manage it in the 1930s, even if only briefly. Among them was George Garrett, a Liverpool seaman, docker and political activist, who published short stories and other material in magazines like The Adelphi Left Review, and New Writing. Garrett's work has been known by some left-wingers over the years but has not been easy to obtain, and this new collection fills a gap in our knowledge of the man and the times he lived through.  

Born In 1896, Garrett left school in 1911 and want to work on the docks. He witnessed the great strikes of that year and the use of troops and police to break them. He later stowed away on a ship heading for South America, left it when it reached Argentina, and wandered around with fellow-drifters. By 1914 he was back in Britain and he served in the merchant navy throughout the First World War. The end of the war brought unemployment, so Garrett went to the United States, where he joined the I.W.W. (Industrial Workers of the World) and was influenced by that organisation's use of poetry and song to put across their ideas. He returned to Liverpool and became one of the local leaders of the National Unemployed Movement, an activity which led to his being blacklisted by potential employers. Another spell of hoboing in America followed, but by 1926 Garrett was again in Liverpool, just in time to watch the General Strike fizzle out. He worked occasionally as a docker but was unable to obtain regular employment until the outbreak of war in 1939, when he went to sea. After the war, Garrett worked mostly as a nightwatchman. He died in 1966, shortly after appearing as a speaker at meetings in support of that years Seaman's strike.  

I've given a somewhat abbreviated account of Garrett's life but it may indicate the range of his experiences and activities. Like many working-class writers he was concerned to use his writing as a weapon in the class war and it had to be produced in circumstances which made it unlikely that he would have the time to devote to anything lengthy. George Orwell, who met Garrett in the 1930s, recognised that his domestic situation, with the family living in two rooms, was bound to limit his output to short stories. And that was what Garrett mostly published, along with one or two factual accounts of unemployment and hunger marches and a couple of short pieces of literary criticism. His stories usually dealt with working life on land and at sea, and though clearly designed to make statements about what conditions were like for low-paid seamen, unemployed workers, and those generally at the bottom of the economic ladder, they didn't fall into the trap of glorifying the working-class or offering glib political solutions to problems. Garrett seemed aware of how human nature was not something that could easily be predicted, and his characters were capable of cruelty as well as kindness.  

Obviously, it would be foolish to claim that George Garrett wrote anything that could be described as a forgotten masterpiece. And I'm not even sure that he would have created much more than he did had he been given the opportunity to do so. His writing had its limitations as well as its virtues. But it does provide a valuable record of what life was like in the 1920s and 1930s. Michael Murphy has provided a useful introduction and notes for this book and I'd recommend it to anyone wanting to read something that wasn't written simply to satisfy the needs of a reading public hooked on novelty and sensation.  

 

LANDSCAPE WITH PORTRAITS by John Freeman. Redbeck Press, £6.95 ISBN 0 946980 780  

How to start a poem? It's something that intrigues me because you need to get things moving without any delay and you also need to let the reader know how the poem is going to move and what its rhythm will be. Meaning can come later in a poem, but without that sense of it going somewhere in the opening lines it will be difficult to hold the reader's attention. John Freeman has the knack of getting his poems into the reader's imagination and he often does it by using what appear to be fairly direct statements:  

Something about being on a bus  
on the long road from Brixton to Kennington.  
The buildings change more slowly  
than the traffic, but I've known them forty years, 
so I've seen them change.  

It's the rhythm that works the trick, I think, and makes the reader want to carry on. And it's particularly important that the rhythm of Freeman's poems is right because they work in their entirety, almost as units of energy which have a natural lifespan. They start, use up that particular unit, and end naturally.  

What is also notable about Freeman's poems is that they have a continuity which comes from them being the product of a particular type of sensibility. Many of us, writing poems, are conscious of turning out a series of them which have only a loose relationship based on their being written by the same person. But with Freeman, I have the feeling that what we're reading is, in essence, one long poem that is constantly added to. From that point of view the individual poems are rarely completely rounded pieces in the sense of the ending of the poem being a full stop to the imagination. They relate to each other, even if they appear to be dealing with separate issues. The landscapes referred to interconnect, as they do in life. This doesn't contradict what I said earlier about the poems as units of energy. Units of energy have a relationship to each other.  

Writing In this magazine about an earlier book by Freeman, John Dunton observed that what he excels at is "raising questions about how we come to terms with the world and so order our lives," and I think this Is true. What I find in Freeman's poems also is a form of mysticism and a response to the landscapes, whether real or metaphorical, which is almost religious in its intensity. It is certainly sincere, and even a jaded materialist like myself can recognise that. There's a poem called Sightseeing," which I particularly like because it's located in Paris, and it refers to the activity described as "like a sacrament that's lost/most of Its content but is still something/the ritual of a lost church, a memory." I don't think the religious references are simply coincidental.  

This is a good book, not one that dazzles with ornate language or technical Innovations or clever ideas. It records things quietly and invites the reader to move with its easy rhythms. And what it adds up to, that sense of an ongoing poem, stays in the mind.

 

THE ABSOLUTE BOTTOM LINE by Keith Martin A Staple First Edition. £5.95. ISBN-901 185-01 -X

The most refreshing aspect of these lively, humorous stories is their subject matter: working-class life just beyond south London in mixed industrial and rural Kent. The author has clearly lived the sorts of lives he writes about, the blurb telling us, He has worked in a chicken factory, on a farm, and then as a labourer, hod-carrier and scaffolder." It is the concrete nature of these stories, their subtle political and class awareness, that is such a welcome change from so many too clever postmodernist stories by the likes of Toby Litt and Tobias Hill (gifted writers though they are).  

In the first story, Night-Shift, the narrator is operating a pneumatic drill, "a jackhammer", in a tunnel on "a twelve-hour shift." The hard reality of this world is powerfully evoked and the precise building terms, "half-laps" or "DH's" (scaffolding connectors) add credibility. This funny, unsentimental story, about Jack-the-lad pilfering is bought to a deft conclusion, the dialogue an intrinsic part of the success of this and other stories.  

Beneath the manifest level of many of these stories is a sense of the author's estrangement- "What the fuck am I doing here? he asks in Night Shift- from the working-class world which he, or his male personas, observe with such an acute eye. in Andy's Effort, Andy is making great attempts to improve his relationship with his partner, Paula (they've been counselled by Relate). At the end of this very short two page story Paula has her blouse open to breast-feed their baby, "lucky bastard", and Andy is left out. There are hints here of a widening cultural gulf between Andy and his partner. Another very short story, Schizo John and Al is reminiscent of the short 'snaps' of Raymond Carver, but without the edge. Occasionally the reader wishes that Martin would push further beyond the light touch and pull out the darker aspects that echo In some of these stories.  

Summer Lightning is a great story. A farm labourer observes the new cosmopolitan owners of the large farmhouse and speaks to the pretty, now very middle-class woman, "who used to be on a game show." The observations end dialogue are funny, and the natural world evocative, "the coppice where they grew the trees for chestnut fencing." Most powerful of all is the constrained relationship between the narrator and the female from the farmhouse. At the end she sees him from the garden but he 'leaned right back into the shadow." Classes do not mix here and the coded restraint is well balanced in this complex story. Martin's vibrant work is touching on a neglected theme of writing, working-class life and culture. It would be good to read a few long stories by Martin, or a novel. I'm sure we will.