March 2006

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

Hesperus Press Part II

Here’s a cliché: “an embarrassment of riches.”

It applies to the range of novellas and short story collections put out by Hesperus Press, some of which we looked at last month. In the spirit of doing more of the same, here are more of their best books.

Henry James, In the Cage: As discussed in an earlier column on the classic novellas published by Melville House, Henry James is a writer who defeats a lot of readers. Those who fall fastest tend to be those who start with his later work. In the Cage sits at an interesting point in James’s literary career: it takes a lot of words to cover a very small distance, but it does it with engaging style and delicacy. It’s about the class gulf, unrequited love, and romantic fantasies of the self-destructive kind. The central character is a young woman who works in a Mayfair telegraph office. She’s attracted to one of her customers, a handsome captain, and starts to memorise the messages in the telegraphs he sends. What starts as an innocent enough interest in gossip becomes an all-consuming infatuation, all based on a handful of abbreviated sentences. You know it’s not going to end happily, so I’m not giving much away when I saw that things go predictably awry. But it’s a lovely little novel.

Xavier de Maistre, A Journey Around My Room: There have been quite a few books described as unique, and most of them are nothing but commonplace. This is different. De Maistre was a French soldier who served in the Piedmontese military, based in Turin. In 1790, at the age of 27, he got involved in a duel, and was put under house arrest for six weeks. In order to pass the time, he decided to write a travel book. Given that his movements were obviously pretty limited, he wrote a travel book that ventured no further than the bedroom that he shared with his dog (supplies were brought in by his butler). He had a special traveling outfit of pink and blue pyjamas. From this eccentric starting point, he produced a truly delightful fantasy. Try to imagine an alternative universe in which Marcel Proust became a stand-up comedian, and you might have an idea of de Maistre’s style. This edition also includes the sequel, in which he journeyed by night, making it as far as the window.

Prosper Merimee, Carmen: Like those modern writers whose novels have been dwarfed by the movies made from them (how many people have read Vertigo or The Sweet Smell of Success, or even know they were books before they were films?), Prosper Merimee’s Carmen is best known through the famous opera. Any neglect of the original novella, though, is entirely undeserved. The eponymous heroine is a sexy, alluring gypsy. Her attractions set going a plot full of romance, mutiny, smuggling, bullfighting and gunplay. Carmen combines the best of nineteenth-century French literature: the action and adventure of writers like Dumas, with healthy doses of the naturalism of writers like Zola or even Flaubert. That Merimee was also a renowned historian and archaeologist just goes to show that some people have ridiculous amounts of talent.

Italo Svevo, A Perfect Hoax: Do you want to read a tragicomic exploration of an exercise in cruelty? Of course you do. A Perfect Hoax is the book for you. Mario Samigli is a struggling writer, deluded in his certainty that one day he will make it. Then a practical joker, a rather sinister traveling salesman, decides to trick him. He makes the writer believe that a Viennese publishing house finally wants to publish a novel he produced some four decades before. Mario walks right into the trap, so keen to believe that he ignores the hints that the offer is not real. He throws himself into his new life as a "published" author, neglecting his handicapped brother in the process. The publishers describe this as an “ironic and affectionate story of illusion, self-deception and impracticality in a practical world,” and they’re spot-on. Svevo was an Italian-German writer from multicultural Trieste, a friend of James Joyce, and the author of the first novel about someone trying to give up smoking (Zeno’s Conscience).

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These two articles have only covered a select few of the amazing Hesperus titles. Other books they publish out include a couple covered in previous columns (see Wilkie Collins’s The Frozen Deep and Edith Wharton’s The Touchstone), as well as a dazzling array by the likes of Chekhov, Dickens, Twain, Behn, Defoe, Verne, Gide, Austen, Tolstoy, Conrad, Fitzgerald, Greene, D’Annunzio and Aretino. A scan of upcoming titles on Amazon features Colette, Burgess, Sciascia, Saki and Simenon. They really are bloody good, and you need to go and read some of them. Now.