March 2006

James Morrison

Small, but Perfectly Formed

NYRB Classics, Part 1

One of the great things about writing a column like this is the license to rave about publishers who are doing great things. The New York Review of Books is a venerable publication which, being in Adelaide, Australia, I never read. However, the Review publish a lot of books themselves, and foremost amongst these are the NYRB Classics.

Unlike the classics published by bigger firms such as Penguin and Oxford (for whom I have nothing but affection), those put out by smaller publishers tend to focus on the obscure and, sometimes, peculiar. My column about Persephone Books last year demonstrates one example of this. NYRB Classics also fall into this group, but their collection is nearing the 200-title list, which means there is a breadth and depth in their books which can only be marvelled at -- and enjoyed. Like Persephone, NYRB also keep all of their classics in print at all times.

I’ve read a lot of the NYRB books, and I want the rest of them. Here, for your pleasure, is the first of two columns on some of the fabulous novellas they are guarding against obscurity.
Great Granny Webster, by Caroline Blackwood
Blackwood was a woman who led a difficult life, and not always because of other people. Heiress to the brewing fortune of the Guinness family, she married unhappily and often. One of her husbands was the painter Lucien Freud, grandson of the psychologist and father to the novelists Esther Freud and Susie Boyt by two of his other wives. Blackwood drew on her own background of crazed Anglo-Irish aristocrats to create this black comedy about family life. Living together in a decaying gothic mansion, Great Granny Webster’s descendents bicker and scheme. The ancient matriarch watches over them, monstrous and proud, ruling and ruining their lives. Told from the viewpoint of a teenaged girl who has been caught up in the Webster madness, this novella is probably Blackwood’s best book. NYRB also publish her excellent Corrigan, a similarly macabre comedy about a relentless con man.

A Month in the Country, By J. L. Carr
Carr was, according to his biographer, “a primary-school headmaster, a one-man publishing house, a novelist, and a true English eccentric” who “would make stone carvings that looked as though they might have come from the Middle Ages, then hide them under long grass in churchyards saying: ‘That'll give ‘em something to think about.’” He wrote eight shortish novels, all of them wonderful, with unlikely titles such as How Steeple Sinderby Wanderers Won the F.A. Cup or Harpole and Foxberrow, General Publishers. The shortest of all, confusingly sharing its name with a famous Turgenev play, is A Month in the Country, and it’s great. The central character is a man recovering from a ruined marriage and his time in the trenches of the First World War. He goes to a small Yorkshire village to restore a medieval mural in the local church, and lives in the bell tower while he does it. But there is another odd refugee from the real world working nearby, and an attractive woman, and the mural he is working on is a depiction of the apocalypse… No plot summary can capture the melancholic charm of this truly great book. You need to read it.

Alfred and Guinevere, by James Schuyler
I bought this book when I was working in a bookshop (ah, staff discount!), and once I’d read it I immediately ordered in another copy for the shop. When I left my job there two years later, that copy was still on the shelves. Thousands of people had missed the opportunity of reading it, and every one of them is poorer for it. Of course, this anecdote doesn’t say much for my salesmanship, so maybe my plugging this book again will achieve bugger-all. Schuyler, better known as a poet, wrote two short novels, and this is the shorter and the better -- not that the other, What’s for Dinner?, also published by NYRB, isn’t great too. The title characters are a pair of children sent by their parents to spend the summer in their grandmother’s country house. It perfectly captures what childhood is like, that heady mix of magic, sadness, anger, boredom and fun. The story is told in a mix of diary entries and dialogue, which work to completely immerse you in the world of the children. Writing a column solely about books you love soon leaves you looking for superlatives you haven’t yet used, and coming up short. I hope it’s sufficient to say that this is a masterpiece.
The Vet’s Daughter, by Barbara Comyns
NYRB describe this as being like “an unexpected cross between Flannery O’Connor and Stephen King,” which is actually pretty accurate. Fortunately the writing is of O’Connor’s quality, rather than King’s. Comyns wrote a number of books, many based on her own odd life. She was enraged when one, Sisters by a River, was printed with all of her numerous spelling mistakes intact. Weirdly, that book doesn’t suffer from this odd move. The Vet’s Daughter covers some of the same ideas from a far more sinister angle. Alice’s vet father is a brutal, animal-hating man, living with his family in London. His wife dies, and he replaces her with a vulgar, spiteful woman who sets about remoulding Alice’s looks and personality. To save herself, Alice begins to withdraw into a weird dream world -- one which is capable of startling intrusions into reality. All of Comyns’s books are worth tracking down, though most are out of print. NYRB is to be congratulated for saving this one, and I only hope they rescue more.

Next month we’ll plunge deeper into the NYRB collection. One of the books will even have the word ‘masterpiece’ in the title. How can you go wrong?