Thursday, 22 December 2011

Three American Classics

Sometimes there comes a realisation that for all the books you have read there yet remain obvious classics of literature that for some reason you have passed over. So it was a month or two ago when I decided the time had come to fill a significant gap in my reading life by finally getting round to three of the greatest works of twentieth century American literature. These were, in no order of preference: "In Cold Blood" by Truman Capote, "The Great Gatsby" by F Scott Fitzgerald and Harper Lee's "To Kill a Mockingbird". These were all books about which I had read, of which I had seen film adaptations and which I had probably held discussions about with others; short of actually reading them I guess I had already pretty much absorbed their characters and themes. It could be argued that "In Cold Blood", being a factual account of a savage killing, is more true crime than literature but the writing is so good, the scene so well depicted that, like the other two, I would consider it a great work of literature.

"In Cold Blood" tells of the killing of four members of the Clutter family (man, wife and two children) at their home of River Valley Farm in the West Kansas town of Holcomb on November 15th 1959, by two young men, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock, newly released from jail. Capote visited Holcomb (in the company of Harper Lee) some time after the killing, interviewed witnesses, local people and the lawmen who brought the killers to justice. He also interviewed the killers, both hung after several appeals, while they waited on Death Row. The result is a gripping, chilling narrative, full of atmospheric description and forensic studies of the killers' personalities. The book was published to universal acclaim in 1965 and ensured lasting fame for its author and lasting notoriety for the town of Holcomb. The photograph below is of Truman Capote in the lounge of the Clutter farmstead.
Two years ago we drove across the Kansas prairie and saw something of the countryside so wonderfully described by Capote, with its isolated farmhouses, small towns and low sand hills, much as Hickock and Smith must have done on their journey to Holcomb, triggered by a chance conversation in jail between Hickock and a fellow prisoner who had once worked at River Valley Farm. On such chance encounters are fates determined and nobody could have told this story better.

 "The Great Gatsby", by the flamboyant F Scott Fitzgerald, is beautifully written, with the light touch of a master, but it too has its dark side as the appalling socialites Tom Buchanan and his flirtatious wife Daisy wreak havoc on their neighbours in the wealthy villages of West and East Egg on Long Island. The story is set in the 1920's and is narrated by Nick Carraway, a cousin of Daisy's, who rents a house next to the mansion rented by Jay Gatsby, a reclusive apparent millionaire who throws lavish parties for all who come. Jay had loved Daisy in his youth and exploits Nick's good nature to set up a meeting with Daisy. From this flow bitter arguments between Gatsby and Buchanan as the former attempts to wrest Daisy from her husband. The climax comes when Daisy accidentally kills her husband's mistress in a motoring accident. Believing Gatsby to have been driving the car, the victim's husband shoots and kills Gatsby in his swimming pool before killing himself. The appalled Carraway says farewell to Daisy and Tom, who, apparently not greatly affected by the tragedy wrought, move on to continue their lives in the roaring twenties. One of the recurring themes in the book is the 'eyes of Dr. Eckleberg, the eyes being on an advertising billboard for an optician. This billboard is next to the the garage run by Buchanan's mistress's husband and the eyes act as mute observers of the chaos caused by the reckless playboys of the Jazz Age.
 Fitzgerald himself was very much a part of this scene. That he could stand back from it and produce this masterpiece is something for which we should all be grateful.
 "To Kill a Mockingbird" shares with "The Great Gatsby" a narrator through whose eyes and ears we enter a particular kind of world. Here we are in Maycomb County in 1930's Alabama and our narrator is Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout), the 6 year old daughter of an honourable white lawyer, Atticus Finch, a widower, who share the house with Scout's 9 year old brother Jem and their black servant, Calpurnia. Through Scout, over a 3 year period, we learn about the neighbourhood, the mysterious Boo Radley, who lives near them but never goes out of the house, and we take part in the daily activities such as school and the longed for holidays. Slowly we become aware that Atticus is deeply unpopular amongst many of their neighbours since he has been appointed to defend a black man Tom Robinson, against a charge of raping a young white girl, Mayella Ewell. It is not the fact that he has been appointed that upsets them, but the fact that he clearly intends to demonstrate Tom's innocence to the best of his ability. The court case, witnessed from the 'coloured balcony' by Scout and Jem is riveting and Atticus succeeds in discrediting Mayella and her father Bob, who we suspect beat his daughter when he saw her making overtures (which were rejected) to Tom Robinson. However, with an all white jury, the guilty verdict is inevitable and Tom is eventually shot whilst making a bid for freedom some time later. In the gripping climax, Scout and Jem are savagely attacked by Bob Ewell, but are saved by Boo Radley, who stabs and kills Ewell. The sheriff convinces Atticus that it is best to tell the world that Ewell fell on his own knife, since the reclusive Boo could never survive the ordeal of trial. As Scout points out it would be a sin to kill a mockingbird, i.e. a beautiful creature that does no harm to anyone. "Remember", Atticus had told Scout and Jem when he gave them their first shotguns early in the novel, "you can kill as many bluejays as you want, but it's a sin to kill a mockingbird."
 This book I would place as my favourite of the three because of the wonderful characters and the utterly convincing Scout.

Tuesday, 13 December 2011

Defining a Collection

The last part of this Blog described a particular author collection, specifically a Bronte collection. It is now time to lay down some rules. Let us assume you have chosen an author and wish to build up an impressive collection confirming your interest and the serious nature of your collecting ambitions. Let us further assume this is to be a literary collection.

The focal point of any author collection must be the works of that author. You may already have most of these in various forms; dog-eared paperbacks - hard backs without dust wrappers, with spines drunkenly leaning - odd volumes of a collected set of the author's works. You may even have a great attachment to these early members of your collection. But this is no time for sentiment. You are now into the serious business of collecting and must seek out the best possible copies of the major works. Depending on the author it may or may not be possible to make a strike for First Editions, particularly for the earliest works. But you must get as close as you can without blowing the whole budget. Thus, later impressions of the first edition with the same dust wrapper will sit on the shelves as comfortably as a true first, and only you will know the difference.

There must be one or two signed or association copies. These may have been 'flat-signed', i.e. a simple signature made in Waterstone's; they may be dedications to an individual. If the dedicatee has some connection with the author then this is very good ("To Bosie from Oscar"), but in most cases you will not be so lucky. Some authors signed almost everything, many in luxurious limited editions, before the 'trade' edition was published for the masses. As a true collector you may prefer the honest trade edition to such esoterica (particularly if funds are limited). There are exceptions: The Hogarth Press and Virginia Woolf are inseparable, early fragments of James Joyce's 'Work in Progress' are essential in a Joyce collection.

OK, now we have the books by the author, but then you become aware of various collected editions of the author's works that are generally referred to in coded references such as Cook and Wedderburn Vol XXXIV. To hold your head up in any assemblage of devotees of your author, it is really necessary to acquire such a set even if you never read it and leave the pages uncut and unopened. There is only one rule here, buy the best or none at all. The best is instantly recognisable from the cadence of it's title, reflecting all that is best about the author. So we have The Sussex Edition (Kipling), The New York Edition (Henry James), The Knutsford Edition (Mrs Gaskell), The Caerleon Edition (Arthur Machen). Such titles reflect a certain elegance and grandeur and pity the author who has not laid claim to his native town or adopted county in his collected works. You will search in vain for The Stoke on Trent Edition of Arnold Bennett.

Next Bibliography; how else can you confirm the completeness and importance of your collection? Here you are well served and should easily acquire the standard bibliography, i.e. the one everyone quotes. Classic examples are Michael Sadleir's Trollope bibliography and Slocum and Cahoon's James Joyce bibliography. There is something really affirming in proving that your copy of 'Dubliners' is actually Slocum and Cahoon 9, while your copy of Arthur Machen's 'The Secret Glory' is Goldstone and Sweetser 19e (variant issue). You somehow knew these books were important, but nice to have your instincts consolidated in this way.

And so to Biography; accepting that your author's autobiography, if it exists, is likely to be the least reliable record, this must be first on the shelves, followed by, maybe three or four others spaced out over the period since the author's first success, with at least one recent life of the author, to put to rest any suspicions that you are not keeping your collection up to date.

The next area is difficult; this is the area of literary criticism. You really need to demonstrate that you do not merely read your author - you study your author. Now, do not confuse this with Reading Circles or York Notes. I am not talking here of books that take a difficult work and simplify it for the average reader. I am talking about books that take a basically simple narrative and deconstruct it into layers of impenetrable complexity. These books on your shelves confirm that there are no boundaries to your study. Worthy additions to your collection would be books such as 'Ironies of Ulysses', 'Let me be Los: Codebook for Finnegan's Wake', 'Ruskin's Poetic Argument: The Design of the Major Works'. Feminist and/or Marxist criticism will confirm your lack of prejudice and willingness to embrace new interpretations.

Finally, it will come as no surprise that most authors were copious letter writers and that most people receiving their letters put them in a safe place, even more so once the author's fame was assured. Even less of a surprise is that the Collected Letters of some authors exceed their entire literary output and being seen as an invaluable part of the author's oeuvre have not lacked for enthusiastic editors. So, these, too we must have (usually in expensive editions emanating from universities in the American mid-west, which with enviable foresight and bottomless purses managed to purchase the actual letters before the rest of us caught on).

So that is it - all that is left now is to try to get even closer to the author by acquiring a manuscript letter from the author, or piece of ephemera belonging to the author. A personal letter would be best - 'Dear Nora, I am going to tell you what I am really trying to say in the Proteus episode of Ulysses ....', - but the best you are likely to get is a visiting card or an acknowledgement for a delivery of potatoes.

Reviewing the above, I see that I may be accused of straying into cynicism here and there. This is not my intention. A collection built on the principles stated will not only be a continuing source of pride and pleasure, but could, just maybe, grow into something important. Only two rules apply; collect the best you can afford and don't stop until the bookcase really is overflowing.

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