Sunday 31 January 2016

Next Year Will Be Better

Next Year Will Be Better: A Memoir of England in the 1950s (Five Leaves Publications, £9.99) follows the author John Lucas, now Emeritus Professor at the Universities of Loughborough and Nottingham, then a schoolboy, from the purlieus of Kent to the bright lights of Soho. 

Starting with a vivid account of a hard-up family Christmas in 1949 this 'boomoir' (the term coined by John Sutherland for the growing list of baby boomer memoirs) is a wonderfully-detailed evocation of the ensuing decade and a beneficial corrective to the Eeyoreish musings of Philip Larkin. 

Sexual intercourse, we learn, did not begin in 1963 and things weren't as grey as they are often painted. Lucas discourses on the pleasures of food, sex, jazz, poetry, politics, friendship, conversation, and the discovery of literature at a time when the spirit of F. R. Leavis informed English departments in universities which were still high-minded engines of social mobility. 

It is a pleasure to revisit familiar territory: 'Flook' by 'Trog', the highly-esteemed Goon Show, Arthur English (King of the Spivs), The Festival of Britain, Coronation Day, Hall's Distemper Men, D.A. haircuts (from District Attorney, apparently, but usually known as a Duck's Arse), desert boots and duffel coats, gaberdine trousers, cycling lamplighters, the Suez Crisis, the Wolfenden Report and, looming over everything, the Atomic Bomb. Lucas has a keen eye and ear for evocative detail, but avoids easy nostalgia in an account of a bright young man negotiating social hurdles and learning how to be an interesting grown-up.

Six months short of his 18th birthday, he travelled for the first time from Ashford's sober suburbs to Soho and had his first self-conscious drink in the French House, experiencing 'an uprush of pure elation'. The faces along the bar were shabby, louche and engaging and the callow young man was entranced. Coffee followed at Bunjy's, books were browsed and purchased and a routine was established. Reading a John Heath-Stubbs poem on the train back to Ashford was a pivotal moment at the end of 'a day of revelations.' The young Lucas developed into a diligent and discriminating reader with excellent taste in books and music. This was a good time to be a reader, before the distractions of television and the internet. He always writes entertainingly, whether about labouring on building sites or attending gigs on Eel Pie Island, 'an untroubled utopia'.

After an academic false start (a half-hearted Walden-inspired attempt to study Forestry in Leeds) Lucas got a place at Reading University, gained a starred first class degree, had 'a feverish encounter' with the eighty-year-old E. M. Forster and an unsolicited snog with Alan Ginsberg. The memoir concludes with a party-goer offering Lucas a freshly-rolled joint in the kitchen. It's the 1960s already, that high, dishevelled decade, and the volume closes with the reader keen to know what happens next in Macmillan-era Britain. 

After reading this book, baby boomers (those of us born between 1946 and 1964, which makes me a tail-ender) will have an agreeable sense of déjà lu, and their parents, if still with us, will have a clearer idea of what their offspring were getting up to. Younger readers will enjoy a field guide to a country reinventing itself after a devastating war and the loss of Empire, a country that is vanishing fast. Buy a copy from the publishers here.

Saturday 30 January 2016

The New Accelerator

Dear Reader,

You are invited to participate in the following experiment in literary criticism. This will take around around 45 minutes (spread over the weekend if you like). Thank you for your interest. Onward!


It's Friday evening, precisely nine o'clock. 

For the past twenty minutes or so I've been re-reading The New Accelerator, the short story by H. G. Wells,  and am now about to write a blog about it. In keeping with the spirit of the original story I'd like to make this an experiment with you, my reader. A successful outcome depends on your full and willing collaboration.

Let's go.

Whether or not you've read The New Accelerator before I'd like you to skip this at-the-time-of-writing-still-unwritten blog - apart from this paragraph of course, which I've almost completed - and. immediately read (or re-read), the story, because much of what I'm about to write will amount to an extended spoiler and in any case I need the time while you're away to start writing the blog.. So, off you go (and you can click on the link provided to read it online). I'll see you back here in what -  about twenty minutes? 

I glance at my watch. It's Friday evening, a little after 9 o'clock. I look up.

Still here? Look - will you please humour me, just this once? My plan, you see, is to write this blog in real time, over the next couple of hours, and to involve you, my reader, in the process. I'm not sure whether this will work, or even whether it's worth attempting. So please - read the bloody story (not too quickly), and I'll see you back here in, let's make it half an hour? This should give me time to complete around a quarter of this blog. It's your last chance to be part of a groundbreaking interactive experiment in literary criticism. Off you go. 

I glance at my watch. It should now be about half an hour later where you are, if you're working with me, as I hope you are. It's about an hour later where I am because I had a call from an old friend who wanted to catch up and then I found an unfinished bar of fruit and nut chocolate and the time flew by. It's now almost 10 o'clock where I am, so we're already quite badly out of synch, and I'Il have to do what I can to make up for that. I hope you enjoyed the story. I'm sure you did. While you were away and before my friend called I checked the Wikipedia entry for Wells and knocked out the following . . . 

The New Accelerator first appeared in 1901 and was published in book form two years later in a collection called Twelve Stories and a Dream. The author was 35 when he wrote it, and died 13 years before I was born. I gave my  son, a copy as a fourteenth birthday present, or rather a volume of Wells's short stories which included this one. This meant a lot to me and will, I hope, to him, because among many other things it's a story about time, and how we pass through time, about what time does to us, what our lives are for, and how time can be spent, or wasted. It's also a story about how drugs can mess with your mind.

The opening paragraph of The New Accelerator is an excellent example of solidly-crafted Edwardian prose: briskly informal, unmistakably masculine in its bluff, keen-as-mustard register, and with a hook in the final sentence that connects Wells's story with the writings of De Quincey and Baudelaire in the past and William Burroughs in what was still then the future.

Certainly, if ever a man found a guinea when he was looking for a pin it is my good friend Professor Gibberne. I have heard before of investigators overshooting the mark, but never quite to the extent that he has done. He has really, this time at any rate, without any touch of exaggeration in the phrase, found something to revolutionise human life. And that when he was simply seeking an all-round nervous stimulant to bring languid people up to the stresses of these pushful days. I have tasted the stuff now several times, and I cannot do better than describe the effect the thing had on me. That there are astonishing experiences in store for all in search of new sensations will become apparent enough.

'These pushful days' - a cobwebby phrase for a familiar situation. We don't write like this any more, because we don't think like this any more, not in our world of stress management regimes and flexible working hours. At the turn of the last century there was intense interest in Scientific Management, better known as Taylorism, a management theory the main object of which was improving economic efficiency through greater labor productivity. Time - and the relation of time to labour - had never been so rigorously commodified. It was as if time itself, once the property of all, was now privately owned and managed. We can still relish the subversive implications of Professor Gibberne's discovery of a world-changing wonder-drug that will lead to 'the absolute acceleration of life' and, of course, the absolute acceleration of death.

The setting isn't the populous capital or some bustling industrial city but genteel Folkestone, now a fading resort but then a very respectable middle-class holiday destination on the Kent coast. Wells's description of the Gibberne residence is so precise that I'm sure I'm not the only reader to have scoured the Upper Sandgate Road for a detached house with Flemish gables and a Moorish portico, a ground floor room with mullioned bay window and 'an Early English carved oak gate'. My money's on number 150, on the right as you head to the sea. Wells, having moved to Folkestone for his health in 1896, lived nearby in an imposing pile called Spade House designed by the Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey. It's now a residential nursing-home, a place for people who are fast running out of time, and visitors are not encouraged (unless, of course, they have somebody to visit).

Gibberne is boyish and impulsive and no crackpot scientist, but what he stumbles across is a  not a mild tonic but a colossally powerful stimulant, a mega-benzedrine that accelerates the user's metabolism thousands of times, to such a speed that his movements become too swift for the human eye to see. He becomes invisible to us, while the world we inhabit appears motionless to the user, who is free to move around, inspecting it at his leisure. What a great idea!

It really is a great idea, but Wells, who was never short of great ideas, does remarkably little with it. As later 
writers would discover,  narcotic writing is seldom compatible with anything as mundane as a plot. It's all about 
sensation, perception, self absorptions. There's no plot, simply a description - and a wonderfully vivid description - 
of the experience of being under the drug's influence. The two men do little but move unseen through a holiday 
crowd, and there's a single mild act of delinquency involving a yapping lapdog. It's they, not Wells, who seem to 
lack imagination. But I'm glad the author left things at that and didn't, for instance, work it up into some kind of 
crime caper in which the protagonists fund an increasingly expensive addiction by invisibly looting shops and 
banks. Something like The Invisible Man, and I'm thinking of James Whales's film version of that Wells story.

But I'm also getting ahead of myself, and can now slip in something I wrote earlier, to buy me some time:

(I'm afraid my formatting has suddenly gone to pieces . . .)

Amphetamine was first synthesised in Berlin in 1887 by the Romanian chemist Lazăr Edeleanu who named the new compound phenylisopropylamine, but it was only forty years later that any  pharmacological use was found for amphetamine until 1927, when the trailblazing American psychopharmachologist Gordon Ales resynthesised Edeleanu's compound and, like Gibberne, and tested it on himself. In the mid-1930s Smith, Kline and French retailed the base form of phenylisopropylamine,under the brand name Benzedrine - the closes we have yet come to a commodified New Accelerator and, by Gibberne's standards, a very pale imitation.

A euphoric Gibberne (and I assume the name should be pronounced with a hard 'g', as in gibbon, and not a soft 'g', as in 'gibbett'), still under the influence of an earlier dose, persuades the anonymous narrator to join him in an informal trial. "It kicks the theory of vision into a perfectly new shape!" he claims, and this it certainly does, although I'm not clear what theory this might be. The preliminaries are brilliantly handled by Wells. Gibberne delivers a series of deadpan practical instructions and portentous warnings, part health and safety nostrums, part music-hall conjuror's patter. The narrator shuts his eyes and waits for the drug to kick in. After a minute or two he opens them and looks around. Nothing appears to have changed until he is confronted by irrefutable evidence that he has passed into another world - a billowing curtain appears frozen in mid-air and, when Gibberne opens his hand to release his empty drinking-glass, it doesn't fall crashing to the floor but remains quite motionless, descending imperceptibly slowly.

I glance at my watch, This is going reasonably well so far, but I really want to avoid summarising the story, which of course you you know by now, and to get on to some kind of commentary, or interpretation. Can I ask you to go back to the story and read again the scene in which the narrator and Gibberne leave the house by the ground floor window, up until the point where they are both revolted by the winking man? Read slowly - not just to enjoy the simple pleasure of Wells's efficient, unflamboyant prose, but to give me time to get ahead, to the things I want to say about sex and death and money.

It's now later. Here's what I wrote next:

Accelerated and disinhibited, the two men venture out together through the ground floor window and make their way a few hundred yards southward onto the Leas, the landscaped municipal gardens on the cliffs high above the sandy beach. It's a clear, hot August bank holiday weekend, 'every colour incredibly bright and every outline hard'.

The Leas are today slightly scruffy but pretty much as they were at the beginning of the last century, and as Wells describes them - manicured, with a bandstand, lawns and space for picnic and kite-flying, and the perfect locale for recreational drug use. There are today fewer amenities for fewer holiday-makers, and the local authorities have never made much of the Wells connection. This is surprising, especially given the competition from nearby Margate with its Turner Gallery, Tracey Emin installations and the promenade shelter where T. S. Eliot could 'connect nothing with nothing'. 

Stuck, and connecting nothing with nothing, I glance at my watch. It's much later, but still (as always) now. You are reading this in your time. I am writing this in my time. You can read much faster than I can write. I type much slower than I think. It's an issue. What time is it where you are? What time is it now?

Outside the familiar has become hauntingly strange or, in the narrator's saloon bar idiom, 'deuced queer':

An immovable cyclist, head down and with a frozen puff of dust behind his driving-wheel, scorched to overtake a galloping char-a-banc that did not stir. I gaped in amazement at this incredible spectacle.

It's a sunlit, white flannel and straw boater, Jerome K. Jerome kind of world that the two flâneurs can inspect at their leisure. As social observers they are doubly disengaged because the holiday-makers they scrutinise are themselves on leave of absence from everyday life. It would be a very different story if set in, say, more familiar Wellsian environments -  the crowded South London suburbs or a remote Kentish village.

But all is not well, as they examine that static, galloping horse-drawn char-a-banc:

The effect as we walked about the thing began by being madly queer, and ended by being disagreeable. There they were, people like ourselves and yet not like ourselves, frozen in careless attitudes, caught in mid-gesture. 

Time to get away from the many small wonders of the story - the bee sliding through the air like a snail and the red-fced party wrestling statically with a windblown newspaper - and think a bit about the implications of Gibberne's elixir.

The scenes of provincial life observed and described on the Leas are not of life as we know it but a simulacrum of life. It's lifeless, and not only because there's no movement. There seems to be no vitality either -. the holiday crowd is 'smitten rigid' and what begins as a high-spirited excursion soon becomes a journey through a sunlit necropolis. Esse est percipere said Bishop Berkeley - 'to be is to be perceived' - and as the two men cannot be perceived by the rest of humanity they soon begin to experience a disabling loss of self, a state we would diagnose today as drug-induced paranoia. Wells doesn't explore this in much detail - but  what we he describes is a paradoxical state of death-in-life, an addict condition. The two men are invisible, spectral, unable to communicate with the world of the living, or to interact with it. In the midst of life they are in death; but also in the midst of death they are excessively alive. They are revenants, animated corpses who return from the dead to terrorise the living. (Folkestone's Wikipedia entry tells me that the town's cultural highlight is an Annual Zombie walk, which attracted  200 participants in 2012. They could aim higher, although this link to the animated dead certainly resonates with a deeper meaning of The New Accelerator. Perhaps the same people could arrange an Annual New Accelerator walk. That would really be something.)

What Wells depicts, rather than examines, is the immediate freedom granted by any drug, a liberation from the quotidian,  that also necessarily brings the user closer to death - not only in the infinitesimal sense mentioned by Gibberne but in a profounder, existential sense. Wells raises important questions about selfhood - what it is, how it is sustained by the individual within the social order, but he doesn't offer answers to these questions because he's not that kind of writer. Like his narrator he is 'given to paradoxes about space and time' but is essentially a practical man, preferring mechanics to metaphysics. As a writer he has a canny tradesman's eye for detail - the commercial version of the Accelerator elixir will, we learn, be sold 'in three strengths: one in 200, one in 900, and one in 2000, distinguished by yellow, pink, and white labels respectively'. He's less good on character, but this is not a flaw in his short stories so much as a defining characteristic. The science is wonky and one doesn't have to be a physiologist to know that accelerating the heart rate by several thousand times would be instantly fatal - although Wells touches lightly on this side-effect as if it's simply a trade-off:

"You see," said Gibberne, "if I get it as an all-round thing it will really do you no harm at all - except perhaps to an infinitesimal degree it brings you nearer old age. You will just have lived twice to other people's once --"

That's quite rock and roll, isn't it? 'Live fast, die young'; 'better to burn out than fade away', all that. Mutability and oblivion are at the dark heart of The New Accelerator - the fear of, and the irresistible attraction towards,  personal extinction expressed through a skewed romantic impulse to live more intensely. Stepping outside time is an essentially romantic undertaking, and narcotic writers like Burroughs are romantic in the 19th century sense. One of Burroughs's intentions through cut-ups and other 'experiments' was to crack time open and see what came out. Today's romantics, obsessed with parallel dimensions as a result of their understanding (or rather misunderstanding) of quantum physics elect to see the possibility of stepping  outside time as a liberation. Drugs aid this.Conventional novels take place over time - the time taken to write, the time taken to read and the time portrayed within the story, so by breaking up the chronology Burroughs was engaged in a metaphysical battle with - well with what? The random sub-division of eternity'? He wanted to free himself - and us - from the tyranny of linear time and drugs, at least in his view, interrupt time and offer the chance of liberation.

Or as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu put it 600 years before Christ and several millennia before Burroughs : 'The flame that burns twice as bright burns half as long.' 

Spatial and temporal paradoxes abound in the story - either reported with relish or ignored entirely. The science is enjoyably haphazard and inconsistent. Gibberne's flannel pants begin to singe when he runs, with a suggestion of hellish retribution for the scientist who flies in the face of nature - but that yapping lapdog, kicked high into the air above the bandstand should really burst into flames (WOOF!) at such speed. (There's an old Star Trek episode, back in the long-ago future of Captain Kirk and Mr Spock, called Wink of an Eye. and it's a direct lift from Wells. It's pretty good, although Star Trek fans have flooded the internet with pedantic quibbles about the science. This might lead us to suppose there's something a bit odd about Trekkie priorities - but we knew that anyway.)

Science-fiction of this Edwardian vintage is not so much a genre as an oxymoron, at least in the case of Wells, who is if anything a great social satirist and one of the only important writers to deal. almost exclusively, with the lower-middle class, which happened to be his own class. 

I glance at my watch. Ach. No time left to go into Wells in detail. He was, let's agree, a complicated, highly intelligent buffoon and a compendium of conflicting convictions - a utopian socialist and visionary who believed in eugenics, in the perfection of the race through family planning and selective culling. He was fiercely anti-Zionist, a profligate philanderer, a squeaky-voiced crypto-fascist and, for quite some time, the most famous writer on the planet. You can look him up on the internet.  You can also find most of his fiction online, although my advice is to shell out on the books. But don't let's get started on the comparative merits of print and electronic  publishing.

Today medical science is dedicated to slowing down the effects of time and postponing the end of all flesh. We are all living much longer (which, politicians hasten to assure us, is unquestionably a Good Thing). Cosmetic procedures, faddish diets and collective self-delusion together create the illusion of prolonged health and vigour and the semblance of youth, or at least the absence of decrepitude. We are all in a state of denial concerning the only thing we have in common. Gibberne's potion offers benefits, but at a price:

Suppose a man repeatedly dosed with such a preparation: he would live an active and record life indeed, but he would be an adult at eleven, middle-aged at twenty-five, and by thirty well on the road to senile decay.

Accelerated senility and/or early death are the opportunity costs. We are most of us likely to live long enough to witness our own physical and mental decline long before oblivion gets its hooks in. Of course we trade off experience against longevity every time we indulge ourselves in booze of fags or recreational drugs or bungee-jumping or whatever adrenalin-boosting sensation best meet our needs or whims. But death, and our fear of death, is behind everything, beneath everything, driving everything and overshadowing and ultimately thwarting all that we do. Timor mortis is merely the tip of the iceberg. Gibberne's elixir brings death incrementally into the world.

Not just death. Sex. It's a commonplace view that any new technology will swiftly be co-opted by pornographers - from daguerrotypes to Google Glasses there's an immediate appropriation and exploitation by a huge, rapacious industry. Likewise in literature, although more slowly and relatively respectably. There's unsurprisingly no sex in The New Accelerator but the implications of Gibberne's drug have been explored by, among others, Nicholson Balker in his 1994 novel The Fermata, in which the central character, Arno Strine, freezes time to engage in opportunistic sexual depravity and nothing else. 

Wells is a wobbly libertarian. The market will manage the consequences of the commercial distribution of the Accelerator:: 

Like all potent preparations it will be liable to abuse. We have, however, discussed this aspect of the question very thoroughly, and we have decided that this is purely a matter of jurisprudence and altogether outside our province. We shall manufacture and sell the Accelerator, and, as for the consequences - we shall see.

'This shit will probably kill us. Let's do another line' as Tom Waits croaked. Not just death and sex. Money. If - and this isn't a very big if - we agree to admire The New Accelerator as a satirical allegory, or allegorical satire, we are presented with a future society made up of two antithetical, pharmacologically-defined communities, a society built around collective addiction to Gibberne's Nervous Accelerator and its correspondingly potent Retardant. A society in which a hyperkinetic minority lord it over a slow-moving, even inactive underclass doped to the gills with mental and physical sedatives. A society in denial at the thought of decay and death, with a compensating tendency to fetishise youth and beauty, however artificially attained, and endorsing a state of cultural adolescence that now extends well into middle-age. Picture a society out of synch with time, and addicted to self-realisation and self-fulfilment though self-medication. Look around you. 

I glance at my watch for the last time. I may mention that this introduction has been written at one sitting and without interruption, except for the phone call and, without the use of any stimulant apart from the fruit and nut chocolate. I began just after 9pm and the time is now very nearly half past eleven and time for me to turn in. If you've read this blog, or at least skimmed it, you'll have done so in a fraction of the time it took me to write it. You may never re-read it, which is fine by me, although a writer without readers is like an unperceived accelerated Gibberne on the Folkestone Leas. But you will, I hope, return to The New Accelerator during the time remaining to you, because it really is the most wonderful story.

Thank you for reading this, and thank you for your time.

Friday 29 January 2016

Pillocks from Porlock

In 1797 Samuel Taylor Coleridge was living at Nether Stowey (a village in the Quantocks) and it was there, either at Culbone Parsonage or nearby Ash Farm, that he began to write out Kubla Khan - following an opium dream - when, as we all know, he was interrupted by 'a person from Porlock'. The spell was broken and the 54-line poem remains, famously, incomplete.

Coleridge described the incident (using the third person pronoun) in his first publication of the poem:

On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved. At this moment he was unfortunately called out by a person on business from Porlock, and detained by him above an hour, and on his return to his room, found, to his no small surprise and mortification, that though he still retained some vague and dim recollection of the general purport of the vision, yet, with the exception of some eight or ten scattered lines and images, all the rest had passed away like the images on the surface of a stream into which a stone has been cast, but, alas! without the after restoration of the latter!

Who was the person from Porlock and what was his (or her) business? As is took an hour ro discharge it can't have been a minor matter. Thomas De Quincey speculated, in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater that the mysterious figure was Coleridge's personal physician, Dr. P. Aaron Potter, who regularly supplied the poet with laudanum. Some sceptical scholars believe the whole thing is a fabrication, an elaborate subterfuge to let the poet off the hook for publishing a fragment.

I was thinking of all this on the bus yesterday morning.

I sometimes walk and sometimes catch the bus from where we live in Muswell Hill to the nearest tube station at Highgate (the one from which Juliet Stevenson emerges at the start of Truly, Madly, Deeply). It's among the oddest stations on the system, set in a deep and heavily wooded chasm, access being by a steep slope from Wood Lane. Most of the bus passengers disembark to walk down to the ticket hall, which is beneath the former overground station, abandoned for the past half century but still intact, sometimes with the lights on.

Standing midway down the crowded bus that morning was a tall young man in bulky puffer jacket, a large and immediately infuriating rucksack on his back and a huge pair of stereo headphones clamped to his head. He couldn't, of course, hear the pre-recorded announcement politely telling passengers to 'move down along the bus'; he couldn't hear the driver's equally polite but slightly irritable shouts to the same effect; he couldn't hear the yells of protest of the other passengers. Eventually a red-faced man nudged him, the penny dropped and he sheepishly moved along, allowing other passengers to get on board.

What a pillock. But perhaps from his headphone'd perspective the red-faced man was the person from Porlock, rudely interrupting his reverie? 

Thursday 28 January 2016

Prufrock's first name

What does the 'J' stand for in 'The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock'?

Its original title was 'Prufrock among the Women'. In later years Eliot claimed to have no memory of how he came upon the name of his diffident and ageing mouthpiece.

The form of the name may reflect Eliot's habit at the time of writing his  own name as 'T. Stearns Eliot'. This was not an unusual practice in Edwardian Britain - one thinks of the flour miller and film mogul J. Arthur Rank (whose initial stood for Joseph). And Prufrock-Litton was the name of a furniture store in St. Louis, Missouri, the town where Eliot grew up, although this appears not to have any significance. Whatever prompted the Pooterish name of J. Alfred Prufrock we may never know, but here's a whimsical theory: perhaps that upper case J was simply hanging around waiting to be used - belatedly - in Eliot's 'Gerontion' (Poems, 1920) where he used a disparagingly lower case initial for 'Jew' in the notorious  lines:

          And the jew squats on the window sill, the owner
          Spawned in some estaminet of Antwerp

He eventually amended this and capitalised the Jew, although it hardly renders the lines any less offensive, with their dehumanising 'squats' and 'spawned'. I suppose we have to bear in mind that the old man who narrates the poem is a mouthpiece and no more Eliot's representative than (say) Browning's Bishop Bloughram or Larkin's landlady at the Bodies.

I recall reading with great interest and mounting irritation Anthony Julius's 1995 book about Eliot's anti-Semitism , because although Julius is a very able barrister he's not much of a literary critic. (Although to be fair few literary critics could hack it at the Bar.) Julius rightly sees a more troubling anti-Semitism in Eliot's 'Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar' and while he builds a strong argument - and ultimately sees Eliot's anti-Semitism as a troubling quality rather than a disabling flaw - the case for the prosecution rests upon a couple of lines taken from a very large body of work. Troubling lines to be sure - but art should always make us uncomfortable and the fact that they continue to shock and repel is a sign of their continuing value. 

As a friend pointed out to me the other day, Joyce never capitalises Jew or Jewish in Ulysses - the main character of which is a Dublin Jew. Or jew, in Joyce's formulation.  Nobody could accuse Joyce of anti-Semitism.

But enough. This blog was prompted by a superb piece  on Old Possum by Edward Mendelson in the latest New York Review of Books. Read it here: Read it here.

Lines from 'Gerontion' © The Estate of T. S. Eliot / Faber and Faber

Wednesday 27 January 2016

Absolute Hell

In 2013 I went to a matinee performance, at Manchester's Royal Exchange Theatre, of Too Clever By Half, the hectic Russian comedy by Alexander Orlovsky, translated by Rodney Ackland. It was unforgettable, for an odd reason.

What happened was this. Before the start of the play a tannoy announcement told the audience that owing to the indisposition of one of the actors his (unspecified) role would be shared between the rest of the cast. The role, it turned out, was a cough and a spit - the household factotum whose sole function was to announce the arrival of various other characters. It wasn't until quite late in the first half that the established lead characters, one by one, each took turns to appear in the factotum's green apron and owlish glasses, and to deliver his lines (while still, as it were, 'in character' as themselves). This earned a few laughs.

Later in the play I had a profoundly unsettling experience of Kafkaesque intensity when I gradually became aware that the cast, huddled together on the far side of the set, were talking about me. Improvising, that is, a description of a middle-aged chap in blue jeans, white shirt and dark linen jacket sitting in the front row, and looking more and more alarmed. This got a lot of laughs.

Then suddenly from behind me (the Royal Exchange is a modern theatre in the round) appeared an actor dressed as a postman, with a package addressed to me by name, for which I had to sign. The package contained a few pages of script and a pair of owlish glasses. What followed I can't clearly recall - although in the intermission I found myself surrounded by friendly Mancunians who said it really was one of the funniest things they'd ever seen. The theatrical company  responsible - Told By an Idiot - are very good at this kind of thing, and I'd love to see it happen again to anyone else but me. My companion was the designer of that show, and I've yet to forgive her.

But back to Rodney Ackland. He once wrote a brilliant play set in a wartime Soho drinking den, called Absolute Hell, which was televised by the BBC back in the days when the corporation still had a commitment to drama. It's available to view online, and I can't recommend it too highly. A fabulous cast, a brilliant production and a rancid two-hour slice of desperate bohemian living. You won't see anything better this year. Click here to view.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Crossing the Border

I was delighted to contribute to Crossing the Border, a Loftus production for BBC Radio Three, first broadcast on 24th January.

Presented by Matthew Sweet, this was an absorbing documentary about the history of poetry and film Produced and edited, brilliantly, by Emma-Louise Williams. I chipped in with some thoughts about the GPO Film Unit in the 1930s and its links to Russian film-makers such as the great Dziga Vertov. There's an illuminating encounter between the fine poet Tony Harrison and his film collaborator Peter  Symes. They made The Blasphemers’ Banquet (1989) a spirited defence of Salman Rushdie for the BBC in the days when the Corporation stood for something and Black Daisies for the Bride, a very moving film poem about Alzheimerís disease.

Do listen to Crossing the Border here.

Monday 25 January 2016

SS America and Alfred Wallis

Watch this first, but I urge you to turn off the rowdy music.

What struck me were the texts that accompany the images of the doomed vessel. These reminded me of the Cornish fisherman and brilliant artist Alfred Wallis whose subjects were, he wrote: "what use To Bee out of my memory what we may never see again…"

A number of Wallis's lovely pictures can be seen in Kettle's Yard, Cambridge. This, the former home of Jim Ede, is open to the public (although currently closed for redevelopment) and is by far the most beautiful place I've ever visited, the home of my dreams. Simply furnished, utterly habitable and with a magnificent collection of modernist art (Roger Hilton, David Jones, Gaudier Bresska, Naum Gabo and so on), all beautifully arranged in a  series of rooms where one could contentedly while away a lifetime.

Shortly before he died Wallis wrote to Ede, who had been a loyal supporter:

i am thinkin of givin up The paints all to gether i have nothin But Persecution and gelecy [jealousy] and if you can com [come] down for an hour or 2 you can take them with you and give what they are worf [worth] afterwards. These drawers and shopes are all jealous of me.

Odd that Wallis could manage 'jealous' but was banjax'd by 'gelecy'. Wallis's paintings and prose are of a piece. A marvellous painter, and a very good man.

Sunday 24 January 2016

"Unhappy bubbles of anal wind"

Following yesterday's blog about the young Stephen Fry's magnificent monologue "The Letter', here he is with his quondam comedy colleague Hugh Laurie, both on excellent form as, respectively, a baffled and affronted English master and a precocious schoolboy poet. A superbly written sketch, and very funny. Contains many gratifying Bowie references.

Fry and Laurie were a marvellous double act - neither were straight men (if you see what I mean) and they combined verbally dextrous comedy with a great deal of ebullient silliness. Here's another favourite, the sublime 'Language' dialogue. This always has me in fits, not least when Fry pronounces the word 'capable' in a way never heard before or since. Can any of today's comedians riff so wittily on  the difference between syntax and semantics? Chomsky's celebrated "Colorless green ideas sleep furiously") becomes the equally memorable and meaningless 'Hold the newsreader's nose squarely, reader, or friendly milk will countermand my trousers'. The whole langue/parole issue initiated by Ferdinand de Saussure has never been so clearly and cogently explained.

Saturday 23 January 2016

The Letter

I remember, many years ago, attending a benefit performance at the London Palladium ("that mult-coloured stadium / That showbiz calls home") where a very young performer called Stephen Fry perched on a stool in front of the curtain and, in a lush purple smoking jacket, simply read from a large leather bound volume and brought the house down. I was delighted to discover that a recording of 'The Letter' appears on YouTube and here it is.

"He was either mad, or both". Excellent! 

Friday 22 January 2016

One pound fish

Cries of London is a beautifully-produced book on the subject of street traders by The Gentle Author. You can find out more about the book and its anonymous writer here.

It's a fascinating assembly of images from humble chapbooks and other sources since the time of Pepys, accompanied by short essays by TGA himself. He has overlooked one cry, a personal favourite of mine: the corset seller Madame Birnberg was one of the Berwick Street market 'schleppers' (fast-talking rag-traders who stood in the street hollering at pedestrians) and in the 1930s she became famous for her arresting delivery of her magnificent cry: 'It'll pull you in, duck!'

The Gentle Author brings us up to date with this singing fishmonger in East London's Upton Park market (who, I understand, is a now a wealthy pop star in his native Pakistan).

Come on ladies, come on ladies
One pound fish
Have-a, have-a look
One pound fish.

More than 14 million people have watched his performance. Catchy isn't the word:

Thursday 21 January 2016

Coming in 2016

You could do worse than put down your mug of cocoa or goblet of gin for a moment and spend time on the CB editions website whereon appears a list of current and forthcoming publications, all (dare I say it) essential reading:

Available now: 

Jack Robinson, by the same author: ‘a kind of portrait of the contemporary committed reader: oh, you think, reading it, is that what I’m like?’ – Jonathan Gibbs. (I've just read this for the second time and think it's a brilliant example of what I call 'occasional prose' (as one says 'occasional poetry') - something tangy and zeitgeisty, something that salvages moments from the wreck of time and fixes them for the future. A quietly dazzling reflection on what it means to read, to be read. Gibbs is bang on the money, as ever.

Coming in February/March: 

Will Eaves, The Inevitable Gift Shop: ‘surprising, tender, funny and profound’ – Michelle de Kretser.

This will get me through the dog days - it's a blend of poetry and prose (apparently) from a reliably unpredictable writer whose polyphonic anti-novel The Absent Therapist was one of my favourite books of last year

Julian Stannnard: What were you thinking?: ‘one of the most distinctive British poets writing today’ – Deborah Levy.

I don't know Stannard's work - yet - and the pleasure of discovering a new poet is one of the gifts reserved for all ages. CB editions were the first to publish J O Morgan, whose Interference Pattern will be published by Jonathan Cape in Spring and is - trust me on this - a polyvocal 21st century equivalent to The Waste Land.)

David Collard: About a Girl: a reader’s guide to Eimear McBride’s A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing.

Of the many books published in 2016 this is sure to be one of them, but I shall say no more for now.


Patrick Mackie, The Further Adventures Of The Lives Of The Saints;

Beverley Bie Brahic, Hunting the Boar.

Patrick Mackie has been published by Carcanet - a good sign - and I like the title, with its easy conflation of pop culture and something less ignoble. Beverley Bie Brahic's brilliant translations of Apollinaire (winner of the 2014 Scott Moncrieff Prize) and Francis Ponge have been a constant pleasure since my son (after some diplomatic prompting) gave me both volumes for my birthday last year. Her previous collection of poetry White Sheets is as fresh and crisp and appealing as its title.


Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine by Diane Williams: ‘one of the true heroes of the Amercian avant-garde’ – Jonathan Franzen; ‘one of the very few contemporary prose writers who seem to be doing something independent, energetic, heartfelt’ – Lydia Davis.

I'd follow Lydia Davies wherever she cares to lead me. The title (and I'm reasonably sure it has nothing at all to do with The Goon Show's Eccles) sounds like a reason to stick around until Autumn.

Fine, fine, fine, fine, fine by Diane Williams: ‘one of the true heroes of the Amercian avant-garde’ – Jonathan Franzen; ‘one of the very few contemporary prose writers who seem to be doing something independent, energetic, heartfelt’ – Lydia Davis.

Also forthcoming from this publisher is the keenly-anticipated second issue of Sonofabook. Perhaps 2016, despite the horrible losses of Lemmy and Bowie, won't turn out to be the shittiest year since records began. Onward!

Wednesday 20 January 2016

The Prose Factory

My bedside reading for the past few weeks has been D. J. Taylor's The Prose Factory: Literary Life in Britain since 1918. You can read Stefan Collini's thoughtful Guardian review here.

Taylor (who is a very accomplished novelist and biographer) trained as an historian, which is unusual  in a literary critic, and appears to have read not just everything, but everything else as well. I once asked him, between lulls in the hubbub of a literary shindig, whether there was anything he hadn't read. "The canon" he replied. Collini notes that Taylor rarely strays 'from the lower slopes of Parnassus' and he certainly takes a keener interest in the literary foot soldiers than in the generals. It's the Grub Street hacks, the editors and critics that interest him most, and his focus is largely on fiction. Having said which, my favourite chapter (and the one I found most illuminating) is about the Georgians, the once-popular, now long-forgotten poets who had the misfortune to be overtaken and subsumed by the modernists in general and The Waste Land in particular. Old Possum was a tough act to precede.

I especially admired the passage in which he quotes 'the driest of old sticks'  the 'much excoriated Edward Shanks', who in turn quotes G. K. Chesterton's eloquently blimpish view that "vers libre was no more a revolution in poetry than sleeping in a ditch was a revolution in architecture".

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Scissors trousers bollocks

Re-reading Beckett's Dying Words by Christopher Ricks, a wonderful critical engagement with the writer and an example of close reading at its best. Younger readers may never have come across close reading, or what the French call explication de texte. It was developed in Cambridge in the 1920s by I. A. Richards and his pupil William Empson, was later taken up in the middle of the last century by the New Critics and has since fallen in and out of favour. Close reading is defined as 'the careful, sustained interpretation of a brief passage of text.' Why this should strike anyone as being an optional and even outlandish approach to the better understanding of poetry or prose is beyond me, but things have changed and new orthodoxies prevail, especially in academia.

At one point Ricks ropes in Anthony Burgess:

There is a moment in an Anthony Burgess novel when the man in danger, fascinated as any good Burgess-man is by language, watches someone advance on him with a pair of scissors, and can only marvel at such intersections of the singular and the plural as the three which comprise his imminent fate: scissors / trousers / bollocks.

Ricks is referring to a moment in chapter 14 of the tersely-titled Burgess novel M/F, published in 1971: 

Miss Emmett clackclacked at his crotch, thus bringing into the same area of action the three dual forms: scissors, trousers, ballocks.

Ricks is reminded of a remarkably similar 'intersection of the singular' in Beckett's great novel Watt (written during the war and published in 1953) and I'll have to check that reference before adding it to this blog. Scissors, trousers, bollocks sounds like an eye-watering sado-masochistic version of the childhood game stone-paper-scissors. 

But back to Ricks and Beckett's Dying Words. It's wonderfully clever and erudite and incisive as well as generously wide-ranging. It includes this gem (new to me) from John Gielgud’s obituary of the German actress Elisabeth Bergner: 

An amazingly original and enigmatic personality of enormous fascination, I am very proud to have known her.

An example, says Ricks, of “the tempting self-attention which a dangling participle may effect.” 

Quotations © Faber and Faber and The Estate of Anthony Burgess

Monday 18 January 2016

On breaking America

I started this occasional blog in January 2013 and have just noticed two things:

First, that the number of my readers in the United States is for the first time about to exceed - and may have already exceeded - the number here in the UK. This is down to a rise in the number of US readers (itself inexplicable but very welcome), not a decline in the number of British readers (ditto). Perhaps I should reflect this demographic shift in my readership and blog about things likely to be of greater interest to my readers across the Atlantic? Not that I'm in any way equipped to do so. 

Second, that I have to my astonishment accumulated many more readers in many more countries than I knew, not being technically capable of monitoring such useful data. According to a Google feature that has just been brought to my attention I seem to be fast approaching 900,000 readers worldwide. This gave me a jolt. Of course the figure may represent only the hapless myriads who have inadvertently landed on a page of mine while looking for something else - they are no more likely to be readers than (say) purchasers of Ulysses get beyond the first few pages (although I suspect more people go the distance than populist journalists like to make out. It should be shameful for anyone with pretensions to literacy to admit to never having completed the greatest novel in the English language0. But surely some of these 900,000 have read beyond the first line or two? How can I find out? Do I even want to find out?  And is there some way I can make a living out of all this? If every one of this 900,000 hypothetical readers sent me a  dollar (say) that would be (pause for calculation) getting on for a million dollars. A dollar (or a pound or a euro) all seem a perfectly reasonable amount to pay to read this irregular blog whenever you feel like it. And such a lavish windfall would enable me to spend several years writing (and blogging) the three or four books on which I expect my claim to any literary merit depends. 

Apart from the UK and the US (or the US and the UK, as I expect I shall have to say in the future) my main readerships (if such a plural is allowable) are, in descending numerical order: France, Ukraine, Germany, Russia, Canada, China and Poland. Now I don't know and cannot find out whether (say) I have 2,000 readers in France or simply one maniac who has clicked on my blog more than 2,000 times, or perhaps some other combination of readers and clicks.

To them all I say: thank you. Thank you!

Sunday 17 January 2016

How to write a novel.

I've been reading the latest issue of The Muswell Flyer ('The Local Magazine for Local People'). and prompted by our friend and neighbour Polly Faber I looked closely at a feature on page 10. It's called Playing To Your Strengths and is written by a 'life coach' called Dave Robson. Dave has been thinking about the problems faced by aspiring writers:

Truth is, if you want to write a book you have to dedicate yourself to writing regularly - come what may and whatever the cost. There is no other way. If you don't want to write in a dirty house, hire a cleaner, get a dog-walker, get a personal assistant - in other words assemble the team you need to ensure your efforts bear fruit. That way you end up not only with a finished manuscript but also with a clean house, a fit and happy dog, the washing up done, and e-mails and phone calls answered.

It really is that simple. All you have to do is recruit a team to look after everything and then you can spend all your time writing novels. It's been said that you can make a small fortune as a novelist - but you clearly have to start off with a large one.

Text © Dave Robson / The Muswell Flyer 2015

Saturday 16 January 2016

Do the right thing

From the website of the 2016 Oxford Literary Festival, which is held in April

Enjoy an afternoon in the company of one of the nation’s best-loved children’s writers as she talks about her books and her life as a writer. 

Dame Jacqueline Wilson has sold more than 35,000,000 books worldwide. An afternoon in her company is a brisk affair and lasts for an hour, starting at 2pm in the Sheldonian Theatre. A ticket costs fifteen quid. There's more:

Please note there will be no book signing after this event but books bought from the bookstall will contain printed bookplates.

I bear the author no ill-will whatsoever, and am told that she has in the past undertaken marathon book signings but that her current state of health does not allow her to engage in such a demanding activity. I wish her well, but as one of the 500 or so authors who make up the bill for this leading literary festival, and arguably the most famous and successful, she serves to illustrate my point: that the hyper-commodification of literature - or at least of books - does nothing much to enrich our literary culture, such as it is. Why does it have to be like this? And more precisely: why do the organisers of the Oxford Literary Festival have a policy of not paying any of the writers who take part? In the case of Wilson and the other affluent headliners it's hardly an issue, but what of the rest? Why has the non-payment of writers who attend literary festivals become so commonplace and (until now) remained largely unchallenged?

The Oxford-based author Phillip Pullman was in the news this week when he resigned as a patron of the festival. As President of the Society of Authors his position was untenable because  the Society is campaigning against this iniquitous treatment of hard-up writers and has written to festival organisers suggesting a reasonable arrangement. He's done the right thing, and is to be admired for taking a stand and prompting a debate. A letter signed by a significant roster of writers appeared yesterday in The Booksellercalling for a boycott of all festivals that do not pay their writers, to highlight this malign practice and to assert author's rights. You can click on the Bookseller link to add your name to the petition. I hope authors and publishers and especially readers will support any such boycott, and send a clear message to the organisers and sponsors. Pay your writers! Pay them!

The Oxford Literary Festival organiser Sally Dunsmore (who seems to be a thoroughly good egg in other respects) says in a statement on the Festival website: “We have over 500 speakers each year. If we were to change our policy, we could not put on a festival as large and diverse as Oxford’s which supports and promotes the work of both bestselling authors and of those at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following.”

So perhaps this is a good time for the sponsors and organisers to change their policy and recalibrate their priorities? Those authors 'at the outset of their writing careers or with a smaller following'' are likely to earn less than £11k a year at best from their writing and they are the ones who need money (unless they happen to be independently wealthy, in which case they may not be the kind of writer that this blogger cares to read). They also need the time to write, and attending a festival (whether paid or not, and however agreeable) is the opposite of writing. Dunsmore is right to insist that the Oxford Literary Festival is a large event but, on the strength of the authors booked for 2016, hardly diverse. Have a look at this year's roster of talent here.

The OLF's wealthy corporate sponsors includes the Financial Times. How would the proprietors of a mighty organ dedicated to the values of the free market feel about not paying the cleaners, caterers, marquee suppliers and security staff who make their festival possible? (Intensely relaxed, one fears.) And what about the other sponsors, including HSBC, BBC Four (the telly channel, not the radio), English Heritage (surely now rebranded as Historic England?), Blackwells (the university bookshop), The Oxford Times and the rest. Are they really devoted to further impoverishing the hard-upwriters who make up our literary culture?
Volunteer stewards aside it seems that everyone involved in this Festival gets paid, but not the people  around whom it is built and upon whom it depends - the authors. They don't get travel expenses, accommodation or even'a modest honorarium' (a fancy way of saying fifty quid). They might get to flog a few books - but to do so that have to give up at least a day that could otherwise be spent writing, which is how they earn their living.

So - how about  a straightforward arrangement to be adopted by all literary festivals: authors get travel expenses, a fee (on a scale to be agreed with the Society of Authors and other interested parties) plus whatever else the sponsors can come up with by way of incentive. Make the festivals smaller and more ambitious, with less of a celebrity emphasis. Raise the bar and lower the overheads.

Friday 15 January 2016

The Modern Movement in 100 books

Daydream: a golden classical house, three stories high, with attic windows and a view over water. Outside a magnolia growing up the wall, a terrace for winter, a great tree for summer and a lawn for games; behind it a wooded hill and in front a river, then a sheltered garden, indulgent to fig and nectarine.

'Indulgent to fig and nectarine'. Oh yes please. It's Cyril Connolly of course, writing as Palinurus, in An Unquiet Grave (1944). Connolly's yearning for a bolt hole in the Lot region of France, close to Cahors, is a very good example of Larkin's 'thin continuous dream'. My dreams run less to property than to books, and this blog is prompted by reports that a recent winner of some huge National Lottery payout plans to buy a really good pair of shoes "for about £200".

I've never spent that much on shoes, but could easily splash a million or so on what's known to bibliophiles as the Connolly 100. These are the books (actually numbering 106 in all) listed in Connolly's 1965 volume The Modern Movement. One Hundred Key Books from England, France, and America 1880-1950. I'd prefer first editions, and ideally with some fabulous association - Beckett's annotated copy of Huysmans, for instance, if such a copy exists. 

How much would it cost to acquire the lot? Gtting on for a million pounds (if that's to include a fine first of Ulysses, currently for sale on for $275,000 plus £5 postage and packing). But I'd want to spread out the acquisition over several years as there's plenty to read, not simply possess. Back in 2007 there was a sale of many of the volumes making up the Connolly 100, and Jeanette Winterson was among the bidders. You can read about it here, and wonder.

Here, in case you're interested, are the books making up the Connolly 100, in chronological order.. I reckon I've read around 60 of them so far, so the other 40 should see me out.

Gustav Flaubert – Bouvard et Pecuchet
Henry James – Portrait of a Lady
Villiers De L’Isle-Adam – Contes Cruels
J.K. Huysmans – A Rebours
Guy de Maupassant – Bel Ami
Arthur Rimbaud – Les Illuminations
Charles Baudelaire – Oeuvres Posthumes
Stephane Mallarme – Poesies
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt – Journal (1887-96)
J.K. Huysmans – La-Bas
Alfred Jarry – Ubu Roi
Henry James – The Awkward Age
Andre Gide – The Immoralist
Joseph Conrad – Youth
Henry James – The Ambassadors
George Moore – Memoirs of My Dead Life
Joseph Conrad – The Secret Agent
J.M. Synge – The Playboy of the Western World
E.M. Forster – The Longest Journey
Norman Douglas – Siren Land
D.H. Lawrence – Sons and Lovers
Guillaume Apollinaire – Alcools
Marcel Proust – Du Cote de Chez Swann
W.B. Yeats – Responsibilities
Thomas Hardy – Satires of Circumstance
Ford Madox Ford – The Good Soldier
Ezra Pound – Lustra
James Joyce – Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man
Norman Douglas – South Wind
T.S. Eliot – Prufrock and Other Observations
Paul Valery – Le Jeune Parque
Percy Wyndham Lewis – Tarr
Guillaume Apollinaire – Calligrammes
Gerard Manley Hopkins – Poems
Arthur Waley – One Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems
Lytton Strachey – Eminent Victorians
Ezra Pound – Mauberley
Wilfred Owen – Poems
D.H. Lawrence – Sea and Sardinia
Aldous Huxley – Crome Yellow
Katherine Mansfield – The Garden Party
W.B. Yeats – Later Poems
James Joyce – Ulysses
T.S. Eliot – The Waste Land
Paul Valery – Charmes
Raymond Radiquet – Le Diable au Corps
Ronald Firbank – The Flower Beneath the Foot
Wallace Stevens – Harmonium
E.E. Cummings – Tulips and Chimneys
E.M. Forster – A Passage to India
Ernest Hemingway – In Our Time
F. Scott Fitzgerald – The Great Gatsby
B.E. Cummings – Is 5
Ernest Hemingway – The Sun Also Rises
Andre Gide – Si le Grain Ne Meurt
William Plomer – Turbott Wolfe
W. Somerset Maugham – The Casuarina Tree
Virginia Woolf – To the Lighthouse
Andre Breton – Nadja
W.B. Yeats – The Tower
D.H. Lawrence – Lady Chatterley’s Lover
Evelyn Waugh – Decline and Fall
W.B. Yeats – The Winding Stair
Henry Green – Living
Ernest Hemingway – A Farewell to Arms
Robert Graves – Goodbye to All That
Jean Cocteau – Les Enfants Terribles
Ivy Compton-Burnett – Brothers and Sisters
T.S. Eliot – Ash Wednesday
Hart Crane – The Bridge
Ezra Pound – Thirty Cantos
Edith Sitwell – Collected Poems
Antoine de Saint-Exupery – Vol de Nuit
William Faulkner – Sanctuary
Virginia Woolf – The Waves
Edmund Wilson – Axel’s Castle
T.S. Eliot – Selected Essays
W.H. Auden – The Orators
Luis-Ferdinand Celine – Voyage au Bout de la Nuit
Aldous Huxley – Brave New World
Nathanael West – Miss Lonelyhearts
Andre Malraux – La Condition Humaine
Dylan Thomas – Eighteen Poems
F. Scott Fitzgerald – Tender Is the Night
Henry James – The Art of the Novel
Marianne Moore – Selected Poems
Dylan Thomas – Twenty-Five Poems
Henri de Montherlant – Les Jeunes Filles (1936-39)
Henri Michaux – Voyage en Grande Garabagne
Jean-Paul Sartre – La Nausee
Louis MacNeice – Autumn Journal
Christopher Isherwood – Goodbye to Berlin
James Joyce – Finnegans Wake
Graham Greene – The Power and the Glory
Arthur Koestler – Darkness at Noon
W.H. Auden – Another Time
Henri Michaux – Au Pays de la Magie
Albert Camus – L’Etranger
Stephen Spender – Ruins and Visions
T.S. Eliot – Four Quartets (1943-44)
George Orwell – Animal Farm
Dylan Thomas – Deaths and Entrances
William Carlos Williams – Patterson 1, 2, 3, 4 (1946-51)
Albert Camus – La Peste
John Betjeman – Selected Poems
Ezra Pound – The Pisan Cantos
George Orwell – 1984

Which books since Orwell's 1984 (published in 1948) might be added to this list of modernist masterpieces? Which books in the list, if any, might be quietly dropped? There's a parlour game for a rainy day.